A brief update

Although it has been more than two months since my last post to this blog [apologies for that], I have received regular email notifications of people following it. I admit that my first feeling was disbelief: that can’t be right, I thought, who would want to read or follow this blog? I became convinced that these were all bots that had somehow found their way to my site [apologies to those of you who are not bots]. But then it occurred to me that I might put the question of what to write next to any of you who occasionally read this blog. So, without further ado, I have created a poll whereby you can exercise some degree of agency in shaping the immediate future of this blog.


I confess that I am doing this partly because I have been unsure about what to set my hand to next, and partly because I have been engaged with writing about a personal project I began over a year ago called The Year of Difficult Things. While you are waiting for me to write about whatever you all decide you want to read about next, you might check out what I am writing over there.

I have included on the poll some things that I hinted earlier that I’d like to write about (archival discoveries debunking the myth of the origin of the inscription on Emerson Hall; our copy of the death mask of Blaise Pascal, etc) but I have also included something a bit more timely (the flap that erupted over the letter in support of Avital Ronell, the subject of a Title IX complaint) since one of this blog’s most popular posts seems to be the one I wrote called “At the margins of the Hypatia controversy.” I’m not really sure what I have to say about the Ronell letter, but I will happily write something if that’s what you’d like to read.

So go and vote. The poll will be open for a week, after which I will write about the topic that has received the most votes. Thanks!



Margins and the Spaces of Knowledge Production

Despite their contemporary association with deprivation and exclusion, margins obey no simple, determinant logic nor advance any single, unequivocal meaning.

On the page of a book, for example, margins—especially of the kind that printers, publishers, and readers typically call “generous”—do more than merely frame and draw attention to the beauty of the composed and printed type; they invite the reader to talk back to the text, offering the reader a space in which to contribute her own thoughts, to raise her own questions, to, quite literally, make her own mark within a republic of letters formed by authors, printers, publishers, booksellers, and readers. Indeed, the history of the book seems to suggest that this consideration (i.e. the annotating habits of readers) played a role in the decisions of printers when setting the type of a particular book. Publishing a book with a sizable margin during the handpress era might communicate many different meanings. First, and perhaps foremost, it advertised to potential buyers the book’s greater costliness, since spacious margins resulted in the use of more paper—a costly commodity for most of this era and one that printers were highly mindful of. But the provision of a generous margin would no doubt have also signaled to readers how the book was to be used—namely, actively and interactively, as the great literary historian Lisa Jardine informs us writers like Gabriel Harvey and others did when reading Livy, Tacitus, or even the works of their contemporaries.1

But if margins were practically made for readers’ marginal scribblings so too was paper itself. As other scholars have suggested, the process of sizing handmade paper—at least paper that was destined for the print shop—with animal glue in order to retard its absorptive tendencies was hardly necessary in order to print on it. The oil-based inks developed by Gutenberg and others for letterpress printing proved a sufficient safeguard against “bleeding” of the ink via the capillary action of the paper.2 What one could not do, however,  was write on unsized paper; its  naturally hydrophilic  properties led to rapid absorption of the water- or, less often, vinegar-based inks used with quills. This fact had, of course, been long known to scribes in the centuries before the advent of letterpress printing in Europe, but that sizing continued to be employed even for paper bound for the print shop suggests that printers anticipated the desire of readers to write in their books.

I. “The dead whom we are shouting at.”

A fine example of typesetting done with the expectation that readers might annotate the margins can be found in Pierre Bayle’s Dictionnaire Historique et Critique (1697). Printed in a large folio format with printed citations in the margins, Bayle’s Dictionnaire nevertheless provided ample space for readers’ annotating activity, an invitation taken up, in the example below, by the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, an avid annotator who clearly showed no hesitation in marking up this (then) nearly 200-year-old book. While collectors and some librarians might shudder at what they consider a desecration of a valuable collectible, Peirce’s annotations—characteristically pointed and terse and supremely confident in their exposure of Bayle’s inaccuracies—seem entirely fitting given Bayle’s skeptical project of taking no received knowledge for granted.

Charles Sanders Peirce’s annotated personal copy of Pierre Bayle’s Dictionnaire Historique et Critique (1730, 4th edition) held by Robbins Library of Philosophy, Harvard University.

Indeed, the addition of Peirce’s marginalia turns this otherwise unexceptional 4th edition copy of Bayle’s Dictionnaire into something unique and noteworthy, a moment of distilled and preserved time in which we catch a brief glimpse of Peirce as a reader. Like so many of us at one time or another, Peirce has approached the margin as a space for argument—”This is not so,” “Not at all,” “Not quite so,” There is no such passage…”—the pointed exceptions ostensibly aimed at correction drifting almost irresistibly toward denunciation. The impulse to quarrel with the author appears ubiquitous, crossing time and space as well as gender, race, class, nation, and language. Noteworthy and (indeed) notorious examples of it have even become the subject of other writing, as in the American poet laureate Billy Collins’ poem “Marginalia”:

And you have not read Joshua Reynolds,
they say, until you have read him
enwreathed with Blake’s furious scribbling.3

In such instances, author and reader/annotator take up distinct roles and occupy, even when contemporaneous with one another, opposing temporalities: in the poet John Hollander’s apt phrase, “the dead whom we are shouting at” and their living accusers. For even when not factually so the author is functionally dead, unable to prevent the onslaught of the annotator or even to respond to the charges and questions laid at her feet.

Given these facts, the reader coming later who encounters such marginalia might reasonably ask what purpose they serve and even, perhaps, wonder whether the annotator is guilty of a category mistake, treating books as though they were people with whom one could talk, raise issues, ask questions, expect and receive clarification. It is precisely this kind of mistake that Socrates has in mind and, at least for illustrative purposes, humorously imagines committing in the famed conversation about the superiority of speech to writing at the end of Plato’s Phaedrus.

Soc. You know, Phaedrus, that’s the strange thing about writing, which makes it truly analogous to painting. The painter’s products stand before us as though they were alive: but if you question them, they maintain a most majestic silence. It is the same with written words: they seem to talk to  you as though they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything about what they say, from a desire to be instructed, they go on telling you just the same thing for ever. And once a thing is put in writing, the composition, whatever it may be, drifts all over the place, getting into the hands not only of those who understand it, but equally of those who have no business with it; it doesn’t know how to address the right people, and not address the wrong. And when it is ill-treated and unfairly abused it always needs its parent to come to its help, being unable to defend or help itself.4

In his account of the helplessness (and unhelpfulness) of the written text, Socrates does not, of course, have marginalia specifically in mind. But his description touches importantly on questions raised by annotating as a practice: who is the annotator addressing and does the act of annotating constitute a kind of violation given the text’s inability to defend itself?5

II. Marginal Utility

Amusing as it might be to regard annotators as ignorantly failing to observe the difference between writing and speaking, books and people, such is not the case. Indeed, the annotator not only knows the difference between the two, she depends on it. It is precisely this difference and her awareness of it—the fact that the book and its author cannot reply—that motivates so much annotating activity. Seizing the margin, the space left for her, whether deliberately or not, by the printer, the annotator exercises and explores a form of readerly freedom: marking her approval, raising questions, expressing bewilderment, noting resemblances, developing a thought along different lines, testing out ideas that the text has overlooked. The annotator undertakes all of these with an expectation of her unobservability and unanswerability.

Marking up the margin thus not only offers the reader a measure of imaginative freedom, it performs a vital pedagogical and developmental function. The blank spaces of the page present both an invitation and a challenge: an invitation for the reader to add her own thoughts to the text and the challenge of not merely fitting those thoughts to the right words but of compressing them into a form the margin can contain. As H. J. Jackson puts it:

Critical marginalia, especially, typically arise over points of difference, oblige the reader to find words to articulate that difference, and thereby foster independence….A marked or annotated book traces the development of the reader’s self-definition in and by relation to the text. Perhaps all readers experience this process; annotators keep a log.6

Jackson’s even-handed recognition that the achievement of critical independence does not depend on annotating nevertheless identifies the distinct advantage the annotator has over the non-annotator: the creation of a record of past thought. Why advantage? Because the production of such a record creates its own archive, one that the annotator can revisit and review on subsequent readings, allowing her to take the measure of her own thinking, chart its development, observe points of continuity or of divergence from earlier thoughts. Lacking any such independent archive at her disposal, the non-annotator faces the greater challenge of relying exclusively on her always imperfect memory of past thinking. The traces left by the annotator, by contrast, prove both immediately beneficial—assisting with comprehension, textual assimilation, and aiding later retrieval—and a gift to our future selves, perhaps especially so when, on a later reading, we discover through them that we have read these texts badly, that we have misunderstood them or, worse yet, willfully misconstrued their positions. As standing reminders of our past errors, annotations can prompt us toward greater generosity or increased care in our future readings.

The American philosopher Josiah Royce appears to have appreciated this aspect of marginalia. Royce was an avid annotator, filling every area of available space with comments

Josiah Royce’s annotations to Immanuel Kant’s Kritik der Reinen Vernunft held by Robbins Library of Philosophy, Harvard University.

or, when that proved inadequate to his needs, going so far as to having his books interleaved with blank pages to provide additional space for his notes, as he did for this copy of Hegel’s Phänomenologie des Geistes

Josiah Royce’s interleaved and annotated copy of Hegel’s Phänomenologie des Geistes held by Robbins Library of Philosophy, Harvard University.

Revisiting his annotations at the distance of some years, Royce registered his sense of the difference and distance between his past and present selves. His notes, he informs readers, made over “various years, express also very various positions,” many of which he no longer holds.

Half title with manuscript note in Josiah Royce’s copy of Kant’s Kritik der Reinen Vernunft held by Robbins Library of Philosophy, Harvard University.

III. Annotations: Adjunct to Learning or Obstacle?

While marginalia seem clearly to address both the annotator’s present and future selves, to serve immediate needs and to provide often unforeseen future benefits to annotators themselves, the question remains: does their presence nevertheless somehow violate the text? This tends to be answered in the affirmative and to be felt most keenly by some sensitive readers for whom reading is an intensely private affair, an intimate communication or transaction between a single author and a single reader. For such readers, “annotations in a book are not merely a distraction, they are a disaster.”7 Jackson, quoted here, quite rightly regards this position as both understandable and unenviable: understandable because the presence of marginalia certainly requires greater effort for the reader who does not wish to hear any other voice than that of the author, but unenviable because the rigidity of the demand imposes its own kind of burdens (the acquisition and maintenance of pristine books) and prevents certain forms of experience, as I hope to show. As an attitude and orientation among readers, moreover— and here I feel particularly inclined to obey the injunction to “always historicize”—it is a relative newcomer on the historical scene depending, as it does, on both the widespread availability and relative affordability of books, two features that, in the history of the book, did not pertain in any meaningful sense until sometime in the 19th century. Prior to this period, such an expectation would have been largely unthinkable and, it should be said, even regarded as undesirable. The latter has to do with the long influence of humanistic pedagogical practice, which encouraged readers to mark up books in a variety of ways for later information retrieval and use, even if only with a hastily scribbled manicule or set of double quotation marks to indicate a passage to be transferred to one’s commonplace book.

Despite having gained currency only fairly recently, this attitude is nevertheless shared widely enough that it deserves both respect and attention. I was presented with a particularly strong version of it several years ago when, as the new librarian for Robbins Library of Philosophy, I quixotically proposed to the graduate students and faculty of Harvard’s philosophy department that we encourage the practice of writing in our library’s books. My arguments—which I will not rehearse in detail here—amounted to a defense of this practice based on local historical precedent (the example of Royce, James, and others, both faculty and students), obvious pedagogical benefit, and potential future research value (e.g. the creation of an archive of philosophical marginalia). Needless to say, the proposal sparked some rather strenuous objections. Some could hardly believe that a librarian (of all people!) would seriously propound such an idea, a (for me) lamentable but undoubtedly accurate reflection of our profession’s dominant attitude toward the practice.8 Others, perhaps more charitably inclined, nevertheless wondered about its feasibility. How, they wondered, could it be managed in order to achieve the goal of creating a useful archive? (I had outlines for a proposal but withheld it once opposition was clear) Still others objected to its pedagogical benefits, claiming that while marginal comments might aid the initial annotator’s comprehension they might unduly influence a later reader’s encounter with the text. But the most powerful objection—and the one in the end that I felt unable to answer—came from a graduate student who claimed to find markings in books so visually distracting as to be unbearable; “if this proposal were to be adopted,” he wrote, “the books in Robbins Library would become utterly unusable for me.”

As I write this, I still find myself returning to these words. Assuming that they accurately reflect this student’s experience, they raise important and, for me, as yet unsettled questions about whether and to what extent one ought to encourage the practice of writing in books. Don’t we, as librarians, owe it to our users to build collections that are useful? And if so, doesn’t that obligation extend to ensuring that our materials be free from distracting readers’ marks so as to be usable by those who find such marks an intrusion and an impediment to their reading? And isn’t this duty particularly incumbent upon librarians, whose collections must and should serve the needs of those of diverse means: those who can afford personal libraries bearing their personal marginalia and those who must largely rely on institutional library collections. The answers to these questions are neither easy nor obvious. For as soon as we raise, for example, the socio-economic considerations against writing in library books, we face a host of other questions, some of them squarely on the opposite side. What of the student who cannot afford to purchase copies of course texts, who must rely instead on copies obtained from libraries, and yet for whom—given the difficulty of the course material—annotation might be a considerable aid to understanding? Should she be barred from writing in the margins of these books even though to do so might place her at a disadvantage with respect to her more affluent peers? And then again: for students who find all library marginalia an intolerable distraction, should the library devote its (increasingly finite) resources to repurchasing “clean” copies to replace those already in the collection that have been marked up?

Readers who have made it this far will find no answers to these questions. The reality of librarianship is and has always been that policies undertaken on behalf of “readers”—an entity as elusive, in its way, as the unicorn—always serve some readers and not others. Libraries must take a stand on this and other issues with full knowledge that in doing so they may favor some readers and some kinds of objectives more than others. Assessing whether and how many are being well-served by our decisions, at what cost to those who are not, and how to mitigate the harm done to the latter may be the best that we can do.

IV. Affective Annotations

It may seem unfair at this point, especially given what I have just said, to make a case for marginalia’s value to subsequent readers (i.e. those other than the original reader/annotator), but I will do so. And I will do so very selectively, focusing on the affectively productive capacity of certain kinds of marginalia while recognizing that this species of annotation is not representative of the class. Nevertheless, it seems to me that this form of marginalia deserves special attention, both because it can all-too-easily be dismissed as merely maudlin and insufficiently “academic” and because it can be overly-sentimentalized and enshrined as a more “authentic” response to the text than that made by “academics.”

What kind of marginalia do I have in mind?—chiefly not those that come wearing their emotions on their sleeve. Rather I want to focus on those that, whether due to their spareness, or elliptical form, or some other set of intangible qualities, have the capacity to stir us emotionally but at a certain distance, to awaken our curiosity, arouse questions, and invite forms of lateral movement intellectually that the printed text alone might not. And by “us” and “our” I mean, minimally, “me” and “my.” Two examples will help.

The first example comes from Lamont Library, Harvard University’s undergraduate library, and bears a stronger surface impress of emotion than my second example. It can be found in a copy of The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Stephen Mitchell, at the head of Mitchell’s translation of “Du im Voraus” [“You who never arrived”]. Here are the facing pages:

Anonymous manuscript annotation in Rainer Maria Rilke, The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, ed. and trans., Stephen Mitchell (New York: Random House, 1982), 130-31. Held by Lamont Library, Harvard University [PT2635.I65 A2525 1982]
 So what do we have? In substance, very little: three sets of underlinings of roughly two lines each, along with a one sentence annotation that has been partially erased. Each of the underlinings are of full clauses and two of them occur at the end of the two stanzas of the poem. Beyond this, what else (if anything) unites them? The first two share a similar syntactic structure, a “you” set off at some remove, smaller in the first instance but growing larger by the second, from a “me.” But by the third this “you” and “me” has merged into an “us,” the only occurrence of this pronoun in the entire poem. Yet despite this, the sense of separation has deepened, the only lingering connection between them taking the form of a bird’s echoing cry that each may or may not have experienced, separately, in the past.

But it is the semi-obliterated handwriting that most draws our notice. Whose hand is it and why has it been only incompletely erased? Did the same hand that wrote these words erase them, or was this the work of a later reader or perhaps of a librarian, who nevertheless could not be bothered to finish the job? Unlike the case of known annotators, the anonymous markings we find in books always present us with at least one reliable mystery: the mystery of their authorship. It is perhaps this that, at least initially, makes them, depending on your perspective, a source of intrigue or irritation. Who was this writer who left these comments? or Who was this writer who left these comments?!?

Being a member of the former camp, I found myself speculating endlessly about the identity of the annotator whose markings I had chanced upon. Was s/he a college student? The presence of the markings in a copy held by Harvard’s undergraduate library (rather than, for example, in Widener’s copy) certainly supported that conclusion. But Lamont’s materials are also available to and presumably used by Harvard graduate students, faculty, staff, and affiliated independent researchers, so that assumption could not be guaranteed. I would have been on firmer ground with that assumption had I found it among the volumes in the Kirkland House library, one of Harvard’s upperclass undergraduate residences. And then there was also the content of the comment itself, which (pace younger readers) seemed borne of greater age and more experience than I imagined most undergraduates to possess. This left the nagging sense that these were the words of someone older. To get a better sense of this perplexity, let us look at the comment itself:


This poem has ruined me for all happiness

I confess that when I read this starkly worded sentence I very nearly wept. What deep reservoir of sadness must have been required to write these words? Of course the subject of Rilke’s poem is itself a terribly sad one—the loss, prior to all experience, in advance perhaps even of birth, of the beloved that one has never known and will never know—but for it to have been so deeply felt that it occasioned a response like this seemed to me truly terrible, almost, in fact, unbearable. When I first stumbled upon it, I recall shutting the book and hastily returning it to the shelf, a feeling of deep embarrassment, even of guilt, rising up in me as if I had intruded upon some intimacy not meant for my eyes.

It was only on returning to the book somewhat later that I could look at and handle its contents more coolly. In doing so, I realized that I had perhaps made a mistake. Had my anonymous annotator written “this poem has ruined me for all happiness” or “this poet?” It was unclear. Beneath—or perhaps on top of—the nearly entirely obliterated terminal “m” was what clearly appeared to be a “t,” the traces of its ascender and crossbar faint but still visible. Was this a judgment on this specific poem or of the entire body of work belonging to the poet? And which had been written last and meant to stand as the annotator’s final judgment? Suddenly all of this mattered to me.

It was at this point that I also began to suspect that I was dealing with someone other than an undergraduate. Didn’t the judgment on Rilke (if that was what it was) contain a dim echo of Adorno’s assessment of Kafka?—”he over whom Kafka’s wheels have passed, has lost forever both any peace with the world and any chance of consoling himself with the judgment that the way of the world is bad.”9 What undergraduate, even one at Harvard, could have ventured such a pronouncement? For while they are undoubtedly bright, Harvard undergraduates are—at least in my experience—hardly worldly, generally possessing only the facsimile of experience we call “activity.” No, the anguish simultaneously disclosed and concealed by such an expression belonged, it seemed to me, to an older order of experience, one prior to postmodernism and what Fredric Jameson has identified as its “waning of affect.”10

As dismissive or even insulting as these thoughts might appear, they are an effort in accurately reconstructing a set of impressions that I had as I studied this marginalia. They express obvious biases (about the sophistication of Harvard undergraduates, for example); draw on past experience, reading, and training; and engage in obvious speculation. They are, in short, shot through with interpretation and might be wildly wrong about any number of things, perhaps especially about the identity of the annotator. By including them I hope to highlight how speculative is the enterprise of interpreting anonymous marginalia, which must rely on always imperfect contextual cues in its reconstructions of the original scene of reading and the identity and circumstances of the reader.

But even more than this, I wish to convey something of the forceful impression (amounting almost to an obsession) this bit of marginalia made on me. That it was contained in a book in our undergraduate library was far from incidental to this obsession. For despite my considerable doubts, I desperately wanted to believe that an undergraduate had written these words. Why? No doubt in part because I wanted my biases, once they had been exposed, to be disconfirmed, both for the sake of my anonymous annotator (toward whom I felt shame, despite the fact that we would never meet, over my insulting dismissiveness) and in order to preserve a sense that the world is capable of surprising and unsettling us. After all, hadn’t my encounter with Rilke’s poem begun with the recognition of the (literally) inscribed presence of another earlier reader? Why then had I, in the process of this encounter, turned this other into something more familiar, a version of myself?

This process of initial encounter, puzzlement, speculation, hypothesizing, critical self-reflection, and subsequent revision drove home something that I had long believed about this species of marginalia but had not, until then, deeply felt: that in addition to activating in us affective states that we (and I include myself here) too-often relegate to the an extra-academic periphery, marginalia can prompt important kinds of ethical reflection. For what marginalia convey that text alone all-too-readily conceals is the brute fact of embodiment—not merely our own, but that of the numberless readers who preceded us. The traces left by these readers makes that embodiment more conspicuous and can—at least on occasiondraw us out from the confining cage of our own consciousness with its private sense-making preoccupations and to consider momentarily other readings and other readers.

At times—and my final example is, for me, one of those times—such encounters produce a kind of awareness that we, perhaps understandably but always, for me, ashamedly, tend to hold at bay. To confront them directly, to hold them deliberately before us, poses risks that we, or at least I, would rather avoid. For me these confrontations are so affectively powerful not because they involve an empathetic collapsing of distance between reader and annotator but an opening of that distance. The text I have in mind is a late medieval manuscript in Latin and Middle Irish called An Leabhar Breac (The Speckled Book) held by the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin.

leabhar breac

The book—the work of a single hand—was likely written by the Irish scribe Murchadh Ó Cuindlis and contains abundant marginal annotations that attest to the conditions of its production.

leabhar breac_detail

Here, at the top of the page, Ó Cuindlis has written, “twenty nights from today until Easter Monday, and I am cold and weary without fire or covering.”11

This spare bit of reportage brings back to us an awareness of the body, with all of its creaturely vulnerability and susceptibility to deprivation and pain. In doing so, it shatters whatever aesthetic pleasure we may have enjoyed or experienced up to now. In that sense, their presence confirms what opponents of marginalia have often complained of: marginalia are intrusive, disruptive, ugly, anti-aesthetic.

But it may be that we need this ugliness. Reading Ó Cuindlis’s words, I am reminded of other bodies that have been cold and of one in particular whom George Steiner has written about:

In the Warsaw ghetto a child wrote in its diary: “I am hungry, I am cold; when I grow up I want to be a German, and then I shall no longer be hungry, and no longer cold.” And now I want to write that sentence again, “I am hungry, I am cold; when I grow up I want to be a German, and then I shall no longer be hungry, and no longer cold.” And say it many times over, in prayer for the child, in prayer for myself. Because when that sentence was written I was fed, beyond my need, and slept warm, and was silent.12


1See, for example, Anthony Grafton and Lisa Jardine, “‘Studied for Action’: How Gabriel Harvey Read His Livy,” Past and Present 129 (1990): 30-78.
2This has to do with the non-polar properties of oil molecules.
3Billy Collins, “Marginalia,” Poetry, February 1996 (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/issue/71312/february-1996)
4Plato, Phaedrus, trans. R. Hackforth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1952), 158.
5Moreover, it reinforces a point made earlier: the functional death of the author upon the moment of publication. It is the natural condition of writing to drift and to do so immediately (“when it has once been written down”) and indiscriminately (“getting into the hands…of those who have no business with it.”). While Socrates assumes limits to this drift, allowing at least for the embarrassing possibility of writing’s rescue by its parent-author’s logos, we must nevertheless imagine—given writing’s inbuilt errancy—drifts so total as to prohibit all rescue. This is the translation favored by Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff (See Plato, Phaedrus (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1995), 81. Nehamas and Woodruff construe κυλινδεῖται, Plato’s term for the text’s activity, both more strictly and in more suggestively sexual terms: “every discourse rolls about everywhere.”
6 H. J. Jackson, Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2001), 87.
7Ibid, 242.
8Anecdotal evidence of the pervasiveness of this attitude can be found in an exhibit I had the good fortune to see at the recently renovated library of a prestigious liberal arts college. The subject of the exhibition was collection care and preservation and, in addition to containing examples of books with missing covers and damaged spines, included an entire case devoted to books containing marginalia. The case bore the label “Damage.”
9Theodor Adorno, “Commitment,” in Ernst Bloch, et al. Aesthetics and Politics (London: Verso, 1980, c1977), 191.
10See Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991).
11For the translation of these words see Timothy O’Neill, “Law Texts,” in Medieval Ireland: An Encyclopedia (London: Routledge, 2005), 443.
12George Steiner, “Postscript,” in George Steiner: A Reader (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 258.

At the margins of the Hypatia controversy

After an extended hiatus—the explanation for which I will reserve to a later date—I am back to blogging.

Initially I had planned for this return blog post to focus on a recent discovery I made while working with librarians from Houghton Library to prepare some portions of the late Hilary Putnam’s library for transfer to Houghton. However, a recent event within the profession—the strong reaction occasioned by the publication of an article in Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy—has led me to defer that post to another time.

When I first conceived of this blog, I had no intention of posting on highly charged issues within or outside of the profession. Although I have fairly strong views and commitments, I did not see any need for this blog to be a space for me to air them. Rather, I wanted principally to highlight interesting marginalia in our collection and, in a related vein, to take up topics that are generally of marginal interest to the discipline of philosophy (e.g. the book in both its materiality and history). Those remain my aims and interests. However, the responses to the Hypatia controversy have convinced me of the need—even if only a personal one—to write on some of the issues lurking at its margins.

Since the controversy is sufficiently in the past at this point, I am including, for the benefit of readers, links to documents involved in the controversy and several published responses to it.

The “Open letter to Hypatia”

This is the first public document, in which the authors of the letter state their objections to Hypatia‘s publication of Rebecca Tuvel’s “In Defense of Transracialism.”

“To our friends and colleagues in feminist philosophy”

This is the response to the “open letter” by the Associate Editorial Board of Hypatia that appeared on the journal’s Facebook page on May 1, 2017.

“This is what accountability looks like”

Professor Lisa Guenther’s Facebook post in support of the statement by the Associate Editorial Board.

What follows are reflections raised not by Tuvel’s article (which I have read and which is certainly open to critique) but by the reaction it occasioned. My interest, in other words, is in matters at issue in the dispute that emerged between those who criticized Tuvel and those who criticized her critics.

 The question is which is to be master—that’s all

(Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass)

humptydumpty_wordsWhen criticism of Hypatia‘s publication of Tuvel’s article first appeared online, early reactions displayed considerable discursive uniformity when describing the article’s effects. The authors of the “Open letter to Hypatia” put it this way: “Its [Tuvel’s article’s] continued availability causes further harm [comment: it is unclear what original harm the author’s have in mind since this is the first time harm has been alleged in the letter], as does an initial post by the journal admitting only that the article ‘sparks dialogue.'” On May 1st, the Associate Editorial Board of Hypatia proceeded to publish on the journal’s Facebook page a response to the writers of the “Open letter,” apologizing “for the harms that the publication of the article on transracialism has caused.”  Attributions of harm likewise appeared in statements of support for the “Open letter” published on Facebook and Twitter. Professor Lisa Guenther, a signatory to the “Open letter” and a member of Tuvel’s dissertation committee, signaled her apparent endorsement of the “harms” claim by quoting the Associate Editorial Board’s apologetic statement that “the words expressed here cannot change the harm caused by the fact of the article’s publication.” On Twitter, Professor Rachel McKinnon repeatedly asserted—as if it were an already established fact—that Tuvel’s article harmed trans people.


When confronted with the argument that retracting Tuvel’s article might harm Tuvel’s career, McKinnon countered by denying the likelihood of such an occurrence and reiterating her [McKinnon’s] position that Tuvel “doesn’t have a right to harm us for her benefit.”

Perhaps the most heated criticism, however, came from Professor Nora Berenstain who claimed in a Facebook post (since made private) that Tuvel’s article “contains egregious levels of liberal white ignorance and discursive transmisogynistic violence.” Berenstain’s appeal to a form of violence that inheres in the article’s discourse—a violence that pervades its terminological choices, its framing of the issues, and its methods—reveals obvious debts to the work of Foucault, Spivak, and others from which the concept of “discursive violence” and the related concept of “epistemic violence” arose.

The repeated claims of harm done or alleged to have been done by Tuvel’s article prompted a sustained reflection on this issue in Inside Higher Ed  by José Luis Bermúdez, professor of philosophy at Texas A&M University. Bermúdez’s tone throughout the article is considerate rather than polemical. He acknowledges more than once, for example, that “it is certainly possible for someone to suffer material or tangible loss, injury, or damage as a consequence of a 15-page article being published in an academic journal.” Nevertheless, Bermúdez shares my own suspicion that Tuvel’s critics have failed, in fact, to demonstrate the harm allegedly done by the article or even to elaborate a clear understanding of the concept of harm with which they are working. The absence of any such conceptual definition or clarification by Tuvel’s critics—standard practice among professional philosophers—ought, Bermúdez notes, “give us pause for thought.” And while it is at least implicitly clear what form of harm Tuvel’s critics do not have in mind—libel, for example—it remains mysterious what form they do mean. The demand for some positive elaboration on this point ought not to be perceived as unreasonable. Indeed, given the seriousness of the charge—harm rather than something far less grave or actionable like offense—Tuvel’s critics ought to feel obligated not only to provide the editors of Hypatia with a clear understanding of the concept but also to specify through careful argument precisely how and to whom the harm has occurred. All of this should be especially incumbent on them if, as the authors and signatories of the “Open letter to Hypatia” do, they seek a remedy in the form of a formal retraction of the article. None of this, to date, has happened.

And you may ask yourself, Well
How did I get here?

(Talking Heads, “Once in a Lifetime”)

Disagreements like this over the appropriateness or inappropriateness of particular terminology and concepts (e.g. “harm”), while potentially productive in a limited and immediate way, avoid touching on or excavating the  roots that nourish and give rise to them. In requiring that Tuvel’s critics define how they are using “harm” and provide clear demonstrations of how and to whom it occurred, we miss asking ourselves and them the obvious question: “How did we arrive at the point where it was not at all obvious to a subset of people working in our own field or in a field adjacent to it that either definition or demonstration were needed?” Put slightly differently, “How do we explain why some scholars immediately resonated with the assertion that a scholarly article could cause harm to an unspecified group of people merely by the fact of its publication and ‘continued availability’?” In short, “How did [we] get here?”

The pursuit of origins brings with it familiar dangers, tendentiousness by the pursuer being among the most common. No doubt some will read what follows and conclude that I have failed to avoid it. I leave the truth or falsity of that for others to determine. By way of apology I will say only that in pursuing the origins of the perspective sketched out above—a perspective that takes as given that scholarship like Tuvel’s enacts forms of real-world violence and harm—I have been guided by the principle that one is more apt to find them by attending closely to what is immanent in the discourse of its defenders.

With that in mind, I want to return to Nora Berenstain’s criticism that Tuvel’s article engages in an “egregious” act of “discursive transmisogynistic violence.” As I previously noted, Berenstain’s understanding of discursive power appears to owe quite a lot to the work of Michel Foucault, who was arguably the first to introduce the concepts of “power-knowledge” and “discursive formations” into the American academy. Foucault developed these ideas in the course of a series of archival investigations into the evolution of the understanding and treatment of madness in France (Folie et déraison: Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique), the birth of and changes in the medical clinic (The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception), and the turn away from a penal system devoted to corporal punishment to one of penitential confession and self-mastery (Discipline and Punish). Foucault undertook these studies during the 1960s and early 1970s. Together they constitute a body of work commonly considered his most explicitly historical research into power-knowledge and its products.

It seems hardly controversial to me to suggest that all of this lies behind Berenstain’s formulation “discursive transmisogynistic violence.” Whether encountered first-hand or through one of Foucault’s many American interpreters, adherents, or sympathetic and/or critical interlocutors, Berenstain appears at minimum to accept the Foucauldian sense that particular forms of discourse (psychiatric, medical, penal etc.) produce effects of power-knowledge that, in turn, produce new kinds of subjects whose subjective lives are variously empowered and constrained by those effects.

Less obviously, Tuvel’s critics (Berenstain among them) appear indebted to work done on the French educational system by, among others, Foucault’s contemporary and occasional collaborator Pierre Bourdieu. Perhaps even more explicitly than Foucault—who occasionally made larger generalizations about western European practices of power-knowledge that he sometimes regretted and quickly abandoned—Bourdieu’s research on the academy strove to remain resolutely local, concerned not to uncover a general European logic at work but to disclose the distinctive features that made up the French academic field. In pursuit of this, Bourdieu sought to combine theoretical reflection with empirical research that tracked (among other things) the volume of scholarly production, where it was published, the institutional affiliations of its producers, the networks of influence among them, their media presence, governmental and political associations, and much more. From this mass of data, Bourdieu developed a set of analyses regarding the place the French educational system occupied within France as a whole.

When the works of Foucault and Bourdieu first arrived on American shores, their enticing theoretical insights and distinctive formulations—power-knowledge, discursive formation, habitus, cultural capital—came trailing in their wake a considerable but decidedly less sexy body of archival and empirical research on which they were built. Both the former and latter arrived at a time when American higher education was entering a period of crisis and change—in which (positively) many more underrepresented groups than previously were entering the academy and, at least to some degree, transforming the content of the curriculum through the formation of new disciplines and greater attention to interdisciplinarity, and in which students (again positively) were becoming more attuned to the political dimensions of the university. Negatively, this period also coincided with rising expectations by administrators over faculty publication and the perceived exhaustion, at least in some disciplines, of older frameworks and methods. American academics (particularly in the humanities but also in some of the social sciences), eager for new approaches to their fields and conscious of and concerned to correct the academy’s historical blindness to its role in the production, maintenance, and reproduction of modern political society, greeted the arrival of this work enthusiastically. Here, after all, were intellectual compatriots who had already (it seemed) done some of the heavy lifting for them. All that remained was to put their ideas to use in an American context and, when needed, to demonstrate the extent of their shortcomings.

The minor tragedy of the American reception of French thinkers like Foucault and Bourdieu consists in the ease with which their conclusions were appropriated rather than their working methods. For the American academics who embraced them and digested their insights, the works of Foucault and Bourdieu were quickly shorn of their Frenchness and turned into expressions of a universal, totalizing logic despite academic protestations to the contrary. Given the vehemence of Foucault’s personal opposition to totalizing logics, the irony of this situation could not be more acute.

Forty years later, this minor tragedy has become a major embarrassment. Concepts like “power-knowledge” as well as claims about the social force exerted by certain kinds of “discursive formations” and “practices” like those of the academy—most of which arose from patient but hardly flawless archival and empirical research conducted on French institutions, with specific histories and more or less distinctive modes of thought, conducted in a language other than English and engaged with and intellectually indebted to a different set of interlocutors—have so entered the bloodstream of the American academy that we scarcely remember that they are not native to our shores. This is not to proclaim them irrelevant, merely to acknowledge that whatever hard won insights they contain were not achieved by us. Relieved of the necessity of doing the hard, unglamorous archival or empirical research into the extent to which the products of the American academy—scholarly journal articles, monographs, etc. —exert an influence on the larger culture or shape and constrain the subjectivities of the individuals within it, American academics can instead assume it, confident in their belief that an article published by an untenured scholar in a philosophy journal with limited circulation causes harm.  Somehow, this does not seem like the liberation we were promised.


Happy New Year, Addenda, and News about the Blog

Thank you to everyone who has read, linked to, or reported on the blog and wishing you all the best for 2017.

The idea for this blog originated several years ago when I first returned to Cambridge to take up my position as librarian for the Robbins Library of Philosophy at Harvard. In fact, the blog’s initial post was something that had been rattling around in my head from the day, nearly 4 years ago, that I walked into the Harvard Book Store and discovered how diminished the philosophy section had become in the years since I had last entered the store. When I finally got around to sitting down and writing that post, the sentences and ideas emerged largely fully-formed. Rereading it, however, I feel compelled to add that although philosophy may be literally losing ground at the Harvard Book Store, it luxuriates amply a few blocks away at Raven Used Books. The owner of that store has a very good eye for philosophical titles and has had the good fortune of acquiring some impressive personal libraries, including some books from the office of one of our emeritus professors. If you are ever in Cambridge, I urge you to check them out (note: I receive nothing for promoting them other than the personal satisfaction of helping a store I love).

But to return to my original point: the idea for the blog has been with me for a while, so I have a backlog of things that I plan to write about in the coming year. I hope that you will find them, at minimum, diverting, and I welcome feedback on what you like or don’t like about the blog. In the coming weeks, you can expect to see posts on, for example, the last known writing of Josiah Royce; sketches and snark by George Santayana; C.S. Peirce’s annotations to his 1730 copy of Pierre Bayle’s Dictionnaire Historique et Critique; the role of archives and material artifacts in the promotion and debunking of the myth of the inscription on Emerson Hall; Pascal’s death mask; and much more. I am also excited to announce that one of my philosophical heroes, Stanley Cavell, has graciously allowed me to write about some marginalia contained in his personal library. Stay tuned!


Fraktur-ed Fairy Tales

A stimulating post by L. M. Bernhardt that responds to and develops in new directions my post The Faces of Nietzsche.

The Deaccessioned Philosopher

In a recent blog post, Harvard philosophy librarian Eric Johnson-DeBaufre tells the story of how Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche took over her brother Friedrich’s literary and philosophical legacy and remade it toward her own (proto-Nazi, German Nationalist, anti-semitic) ends. One of the most fascinating things in the tale told in Johnson-DeBaufre’s post is the way in which even the typface of a book could be (and in fact was) a part of promoting claims about national identity and establishing the nationalist bone fides of its author. Elisabeth didn’t just edit her brother’s work and re-frame it — she reprinted it, republishing material that had already been printed in Antiqua in iconically German Fraktur.

As I read the post, it occurred to me that not only had I seen a Fraktur edition of Nietzsche’s work, I actually owned one. When my employer’s library did a round of weeding many years ago (not long…

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Dreyfus on Derrida

Jacques Derrida, Speech and Phenomena (annotated personal copy of Hubert Dreyfus, Robbins Library of Philosophy, Harvard University)

As a way of expressing my gratitude to Justin Weinberg (South Carolina) and Daniel Brunson (Morgan State) for drawing the attention of regular readers of the Daily Nous to this blog, I thought I would dedicate this post to an item in our special collections that bears on a conversation taking place at that website (The “Analytic Co-opting” and Death of the Continental Tradition)  and that is itself a response to a set of discussions (part one, part two) on that subject between Babette Babich (Fordham) and game designer Chris Bateman. The book I have in mind is a copy of Jacques Derrida’s Speech and Phenomena (Northwestern UP, 1973) owned and annotated by the philosopher Hubert Dreyfus.

Before turning to Dreyfus’s engagement with Derrida, let me briefly summarize Babich’s complaints concerning the space accorded to continental philosophy within the American academy. On the one hand, Babich describes a situation in which work on continental figures (e.g. Heidegger) has increased among and increasingly belongs to, at least within the American professoriat, philosophers trained in the analytic tradition. In support of this claim, Babich cites Taylor Carman’s presence as one of two invited speakers (Babich was the other) on “Nietzsche and Heidegger” at the Columbia Center for Contemporary Critical Thought’s 2016-2017 seminar series “Nietzsche 13/13.” While Carman regards himself—and is, according to Babich, regarded by his Columbia colleagues—as a continental philosopher, “Taylor is so very analytic that analytic is part of the title of his book.”1 According to Babich, this appropriation of the continental label by philosophers like Carman—who aren’t “at all continental”—”automatically excludes any space for the kind of philosophy I do, which is part of the point.”2  Call this the employability complaint. As Babich puts it, “[While] this does not mean that one will have many positions for Heidegger or Nietzsche experts,…when you do have a position it will be filled by an analyst.”3

If on the one hand Babich sees abundant signs of analytic philosophy’s encroachment on and annexation of the territory held by continental philosophy, she also identifies a threat posed by philosophy’s “increasingly narrower analytic mode.” But, as others have pointed out, this second complaint not only fails as a description of the current state of analytic philosophy it also contradicts the claims of the first complaint. For how can analytic philosophy be at once “increasingly narrow[ ]” and aggressively expansionist? Babich never explains; perhaps such paradoxes can only truly be understood by the inhabitants of the continental tradition.

Career considerations aside, Babich remains committed to the analytic-continental distinction because she sees significant differences between their approaches. For her, continental philosophy “includes a historical sense, a sense of historical context which it does not name ‘the history of philosophy.’” Likewise, it consists in “questioning, elaborating questions, making them more comprehensive, deeper, making them worse, proliferating these same questions and adding more and other associated questions.”4 By contrast, analytic philosophy “privileges argument and persuasion, making a case, making a claim, proving a point, persuading an opponent and so on and it is to this extent fairly legalistic, case-focused.”5

Accepting, for the moment, Babich’s distinction between analytic and continental approaches, I want now to turn to Dreyfus’s annotations to Derrida’s Speech and Phenomena to test the extent to which they conform to her definitions. I think Babich would agree that, along with Nietzsche and Heidegger, Derrida represents the “classical sort[ ] of continental philosophy” with which she identifies and which seeks to defend against encroachment. As a prominent American Heideggerian, Dreyfus would then appear to be, for Babich, the sort of analytic wolf in continental sheep’s clothing she feels endangered by. With that in mind, let us look at a key moment in Dreyfus’s engagement with Derrida.

In chapter four of Speech and Phenomena, Derrida develops a line of thought regarding “the status of representation” in Husserl’s discussion of and contrast between what occurs in effective communication and solitary discourse. For Derrida, “the concept of ideality has to be at the center of such a question.”6 This opens onto a crucial passage, one which Dreyfus marks with double lines in order to indicate its importance for what is to come:


As Dreyfus’s underlinings indicate, Derrida’s crucial moves here are to identify being as “ideality” and “repetition,” indeed as the “possibility of indefinite repetition,” moves which, given the absence of clear marginal objections, Dreyfus appears to accept or, at the very least, to provisionally grant.

It is only on the following pages that Dreyfus registers his resistance. Significantly, this occurs at the point where Derrida’s discussion of being and presence modulates quietly from its previously exclusively Husserlian register into a Heideggerian one.


What is occurring at this point? To what precisely is Dreyfus objecting? As his marginal comments suggest, Dreyfus appears unable to follow Derrida’s line of thinking at this point. While this inability might arguably proceed from an inferiority of intellect, a more charitable reading—and one more consonant with Dreyfus’s own comments—suggests that it stems from a hastiness on Derrida’s part that results in a rather elliptical form of argument: “Too fast. I don’t follow these moves.”

In the paragraph that immediately follows, Dreyfus’s feelings of kinetosis only become more pronounced.


Has he shown this? The question reveals Dreyfus’s understandably analytic assumption that, as a philosopher, Derrida is engaged in the work of argumentation.

But is he right to do so? Babich—at least if we are to take seriously the distinction between the analytic and continental traditions she develops above—would seem to say no—the demand for argument and persuasion belong to an approach to philosophy at odds with the continental tradition’s preference for “elaborating questions” over “making claims.” Nevertheless, in his intuition that Derrida is advancing an argument with an attendant set of claims, Dreyfus seems a far better reader of this representative continental philosopher than does Babich. Significantly, the only question marks that appear on this page belong to Dreyfus. Each of Derrida’s sentences, even those with opening conditionals, is in the declarative mode. Dreyfus thus appears to have good grounds for suspecting the presence of an argument here. Moreover, Derrida signals as much to the reader in his use of argumentative catchwords (“thus”), which are as present in the French (c’est donc) as in the English translation, and, more dramatically, in his repeated use of the copulative “is”: “the sign is this relationship with death”; “the appearing of the I to itself in the I am is thus originally a relation with its own possible disappearance”; “I am immortal is an impossible proposition.” (emphases mine). For a tradition that favors the interrogative mode, this is three claims too many.

It would be a mistake, then, to view Dreyfus’s argumentative expectations as inappropriate, as an unjustifiable demand emanating from a tradition hostile to continental philosophy and ignorant of its own distinctive set of procedures. Far from being extrinsic to Derrida’s project, claim-making is immanent to it. What a reading of Derrida’s text and Dreyfus’s marginalia makes clear is that the issue concerns not (pace Babich) Dreyfus’s failure to respect methodological differences between the two traditions, but something far more banal: Derrida’s failure, at least in Dreyfus’s eyes, to make his case.

  1. See  http://onlyagame.typepad.com/only_a_game/2016/11/babich-and-bateman-1.html.  Babich either misses or suppresses the fact that Carman’s title refers not to a recasting of Heidegger in the analytic mode but to Heidegger’s own “existential analytic of Dasein” in Being and Time
  2. Ibid. 
  3. Ibid. 
  4. http://onlyagame.typepad.com/only_a_game/2016/12/babich-and-bateman-2.html 
  5. Ibid. 
  6. Jacques Derrida, Speech and Phenomena, trans. David B. Allison (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1973), 52. 

The Faces of Nietzsche

Fittingly for a philosopher who famously declared that “every profound spirit needs a mask,” Friedrich Nietzsche has worn several.1

For much of the 20th century, it was the mask of a nationalist, an anti-Semite, and a proto-Nazi, an image due largely to the work of his sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche. In a field that has never been a stranger to scandal, Elisabeth’s outrageous and, frankly, shameful mistreatment of her brother’s work has earned her a special reputation as one of philosophy’s true villains.

The elements of this story are generally well known if usually somewhat elided: following Nietzsche’s mental collapse in a plaza in Turin on January 3, 1889 , his sister Elisabeth assumed custody of the philosopher and his work, transporting them both to a large house—the Villa Silberblick—in Weimar Germany, where the manuscripts became the home of the Nietzsche Archives.2 Eager to promote her brother’s philosophy and to align it with her own anti-Semitic German nationalism, Elisabeth then set about altering Nietzsche’s unpublished writings: purging it of Nietzsche’s occasional expressions of contempt for Germany and admiration for neighboring European nations, and inserting a hostility toward Jews that her brother never shared. The aim—which proved terrifyingly successful—was to present Nietzsche as the philosopher of Nazism avant la lettre.3 As Nietzsche scholar Steven Aschheim notes, by the beginning of World War I

her sanitized image at last fell on fertile ground….Nietzsche was a patriot and a martial man—very much a reflection of Förster-Nietzsche’s own penchant for marching soldiers and bright uniforms.

Her efforts would ultimately influence the work of the völkish neopagan and anti-Semite Ernst Wachler, whose Nietzsche, according to Aschheim, hardly differs from the “heroic, political, nazified Nietzsche that Alfred Bäumler and others were soon to construct.”4

The 1897 reprinting of Also Sprach Zarathustra in Fraktur

But while abundant attention has been paid to the important part that Förster-Nietzsche’s textual redactions and outright forgeries  in the representation of Nietzsche as the ür-philosopher of the Third Reich, none, to my knowledge, has been given to the subtle but still influential role played by the reprinting of Nietzsche in fraktur.

To fully grasp the semiotic power of such a move and the meaning it would have conveyed to German readers, it is important to understand something of the cultural background of German publishing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly an event known as the Schriftstreit.

Antiqua oder Fraktur? or, The Schriftstreit Explained

It will no doubt amuse 21st century readers to learn that prior to World War I, Germany was wracked by another war—a war over typography.

Beginning around the turn of the century but becoming increasingly heated in the years just prior to the war, the writing-war (Schriftstreit) involved a vociferous quarrel about which typeface was better suited to expressing the German language, character, and culture: Antiqua or Fraktur.

A 1763 publication mixing Antiqua (roman) and Fraktur typefaces

Antiqua (the German name for roman) or Lateinische Schrift, as it was frequently called, had partisans among many cosmopolitan humanists and neo-classicists, who viewed it as bearing not only the aura of Goethe but of urbanity and, indeed, rationality itself.5

Against this, the champions of Fraktur held that the spindly, overrefined Roman typefaces lacked the weightiness needed to properly convey the seriousness and depth of German language and thought. Fraktur, it was argued, with its heavier lines and greater linear density, expressed the true German character.

Hugo Münsterberg’s copy of the 1912 edition of August Kirschmann’s Antiqua or Fraktur?

Far from being a recherché debate among printers or the literati, the Schriftstreit involved the whole of German society, occasioned the publication of no fewer than ten books and numerous newspaper articles on the subject over a three year period (1911-1914), and sparked a hotly contested debate and vote in the Reichstag in 1911.6  At stake, as the two sides in the struggle loudly made clear, was nothing less than German identity itself. Within this overheated atmosphere, Fraktur increasingly came to be viewed as the authentic expression of the German national character. By 1926, the zenith of the Weimar Republic’s Golden Era and the year in which Germany was admitted as a permanent member of the League of Nations, expressionist type designer Rudolf Koch was murmuring darkly about how “the German Way of Being” was clearly manifested “in the singularity of ‘the German Way of Writing.'”7

The identification between and growing valorization of both the German nation and Fraktur reached its height, however, after the fall of Weimar and the ascendancy of Adolf Hitler. With Hitler’s success in 1933, Fraktur became the official type of Germany: “all official printed matter, school textbooks, and newspapers were reset in Fraktur.”8 That same year, an ominous paean to  Fraktur’s expressive power and its aptness for a nation newly reinvigorated with an awareness of its world-historical destiny appeared in the Bavarian National Museum’s exhibition Deutsche Schrift:9

It is not without good reason that we sense in the gothic script the Germanic will for form to be more clearly demonstrated. Just like gothic design in other arts, gothic lettering appears primarily wherever virile German manhood is symbolized by fighting, creating nations, and building.

* * * * *

Jan Tschichold, Die Neue Typografie (1928)

Although the nationalistic cast of Fraktur reached its zenith in the early 20th century—a point made graphically clear by Modernist type designer Jan Tschichold in his seminal 1928 publication Die Neue Typografie—its identification with a somewhat inchoate idea of Germanness had persisted since at least the 18th century. In a letter of 1794, Goethe’s mother, Catharina Elizabeth, begged him somewhat unsuccessfully  to “stay German even in your type.”10 As Willberg notes, it was particularly during periods of acute crisis that printing in Fraktur came to be viewed as a political act of nationalistic self-assertion: “so it was in 1813 when the German states stood up against Napoleon; so it was also in 1870 as the Franco-Prussian War resulted in the Second German Empire. The same phenomenon repeated itself in 1914, before World War I, and once again when Hitler took power in 1933.”11

Each time, fraktur was politicized as the “German type,” injected with nationalism in opposition to the “foreign” type (i.e., the classical roman, which was dominant in France).

William James’s 1894 copy of Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality

If printing in Fraktur signaled a form of Germanic patriotism and pride, then the decision to have one’s work set in Antiqua might equally express a sense of one’s self as cosmopolitan and European. So it is significant that until his breakdown in 1889, Nietzsche had all of his work printed in Antiqua. In doing so, his work quite literally asserted and put into circulation Nietzsche’s self-conception as “good European[ ] and free, very free spirit[ ].”12 Only after he and his writings came under the custody of his sister did the reprinting of the work and the recasting of his philosophy as Germanic occur.

Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche

With uncanny prescience, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche foresaw the writing on the wall-to-come. As early as 1897, in conjunction with publisher C. G. Naumann, Nietzsche’s sister embarked on an ambitious campaign of resetting and reprinting her brother’s work in Fraktur. Not content with merely stripping the work of its offending barbs against Germans, Nietzsche’s writings had to be shorn of their appalling cosmopolitan dress (Antiqua) and clothed in good German garb. The “true” understanding of Nietzsche and his writing—as patriotic lover of the fatherland and Aryan true believer—would be visible on its face.

  1. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. Adrian Del Caro in vol. 8 The Collected Works of Friedrich Nietzsche, eds. Alan D. Schrift and Duncan Large (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014), 42. 
  2. While on the whole this narrative is accurate, it omits that from 1889 to 1897 Nietzsche was under the care of his mother rather than Elisabeth. 
  3. For a full treatment of the issue, see Steven E. Aschheim, The Nietzsche Legacy in Germany, 1890-1990 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992) and Carol Diethe, Nietzsche’s Sister and The Will to Power: A Biography of Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003). A review of Diethe’s book that details some of Förster-Nietzsche’s unscrupulous interventions is available here
  4. Aschheim, Nietzsche Legacy, 142. 
  5. Associations between Antiqua and cosmopolitanism arose not merely because Roman type was more widely in use among other European countries but also as a result of arguments by its German adherents that, due to its assumed greater readability, it enabled German language books to circulate more widely throughout Europe. 
  6. The proposal, advanced by the ambiguously named “Society for Old-Script,” sought to make Antiqua the official typeface of Germany but was narrowly defeated by a vote of 85-82. 
  7. I am indebted to Hans Peter Willber’s excellent chapter “Fraktur and Nationalism” in Blackletter: Type and National Identity, eds. Peter Bain and Paul Shaw (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1998), 42 for the quote and, more generally, for important background on the Antiqua-Fraktur debate. 
  8. Willber, “Fraktur and Nationalism,” 44. 
  9. Yvonne Schwemer-Scheddin, “Broken Images: Blackletter between Faith and Mysticism” in Blackletter: Type and National Identity, eds. Peter Bain and Paul Shaw (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1998), 59. 
  10. For knowledge of this letter, I am indebted to the blog Typefoundry (currently on extended hiatus), run by Professor James Mosley of the University of Reading. See http://typefoundry.blogspot.com/2008/01/esszett-or.html 
  11. Willber, “Fraktur and Nationalism,” 40-41. 
  12. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, 3. 

And why not philosophy at the margin?

Given philosophy’s marginal status in American culture—a status it has variously and sometimes concurrently  suffered, struggled against, and sought—perhaps “philosophy at the margin” seems a more apt title. Indeed, even here in Cambridge, MA—home to two superb philosophy departments—the signs of philosophy’s remoteness from the larger culture are readily apparent. Back in the 1990s, books on analytic and continental philosophy filled both sides of a main aisle of the Harvard Book Store. Today, they have been squeezed into a quarter of that same space, supplanted by the public’s greater interest in biography and memoir.

A few blocks away, philosophy—although comfortingly not alone—rattles its chains from its banishment to the third floor of the Square’s other major bookstore, The Coop. Another madwoman in the attic or a fitting place for the texts of a discipline that from its beginnings characterized the pursuit of truth as a painful and difficult ascent?

Caveat lector—we must learn to live without hope. As the store’s sign boldly suggests, sojourners to the third floor are more likely to be driven by the needs of the body than of the mind.


And yet…

Doesn’t the very familiarity of this story prompt our suspicion? Don’t we—good skeptics that we are—recoil somewhat at the comforting fantasy that at some earlier time and place it was otherwise? Hasn’t the history of philosophy always been a history of the resistance to philosophy? Why then should we lament what has always been true? Shouldn’t we rather embrace and, attentive to the freedom and opportunity it affords, seek as much as possible to occupy this margin?

Perhaps. But as a philosophically inclined non-philosopher, a practicing librarian, and a specialist in early print and manuscript culture, my aims in this blog (and my reasons for titling it Philosophy in the Margin) are decidedly less ambitious and also more material. In the weeks to come, I hope to entertain readers with some of the materials from our library’s recently created marginalia collection, a collection that includes readers’ marks and annotations left by philosophers such as William James, Josiah Royce, George Santayana, Charles Sanders Peirce, and many others. Along with these will also be the interesting and sometimes amusing marginalia left by the many anonymous readers who have passed through the library’s doors.

As a book historian with deep interests in the history and practice of reading, I have been drawn to these materials since my discovery that they were sitting on the shelves of our general collection. As the librarian for the Robbins Library of Philosophy at Harvard University, I also want to promote greater knowledge of and engagement with these materials. My hope, then, is that Philosophy in the Margin will appeal not just to historians of philosophy but to those interested in the history of the book broadly conceived, as well as to general readers.


Up Next: The Faces of Nietzsche