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  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. 
  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 
  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