Samuel Moyn: Global Intellectual Life Past and Present

Global Intellectual History

This week our featured book is Global Intellectual History, edited by Samuel Moyn and Andrew Sartori. Today, we are cross-posting a short article by Samuel Moyn, originally published on Interdisciplines, which uses David Mitchell’s novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet as an interesting portrayal of global intellectual relationships.

Be sure to enter our book giveaway for Global Intellectual History!

Global Intellectual Life Past and Present
Samuel Moyn

Adam Smith in Nagasaki

In his bestselling recent novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, David Mitchell provides a vignette of global intellectual history, as he imagines it took place in the last years of the eighteenth century at Dejima, the manmade island in Nagasaki’s harbor, which was the sole contact point between Japan and “the West” for more than two hundred years.

In Mitchell’s portrait, however, the intended isolation of the country that Dejima is supposed to secure is not working perfectly. The novel begins with the title character’s success in smuggling in his Bible – which in spite of a wave of Japanese conversion long before is now banned. He has help in doing so, thanks to the connivance of a young Japanese translator, Ogawa, with whom he strikes up a nervous friendship.

When the two first meet, instead of calling de Zoet on his illegal smuggling, the Japanese translator asks him about another book in his chest, “book of Mr. … Adamu Sumissu.” Jacob de Zoet replies: “Adam Smith?” It turns out that he is carrying a Dutch translation of Smith’s 1776 Wealth of Nations, a copy of which Ogawa had borrowed from someone else four years ago. But he had had to return it to its owner in the midst of translating it. Now he has a new copy at hand, and can finish the job.

The presence of Smith at the outset of the novel seems right, for it reminds the reader of the history of capitalism that Smith portrayed, one of whose effects was the creation of new global relationships, such as those Mitchell imagines in his depiction of Dutch commerce.

Yet later on in Thousand Autumns, a somewhat mistaken understanding of Smith surfaces. The novel’s Japanese bad guy – who has meanwhile slaughtered our poor translator – defends his murderous ways by citing economic logic. “Your Adam Smith would understand,” he explains. Apparently he had not yet seen Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments in translation.

Rival Approaches

I raise this episode because it reminds anyone interested in “global humanities” that the topic is actually not new. Global intellectual relationships were being forged long ago, even if they were shot through with interesting understandings and misunderstandings (and still are).

Currently Andrew Sartori and I are finishing a collection of essays called Global Intellectual History, which looks over various approaches scholars have been developing to conceive of the worldwide territory in which concepts have long percolated. Some contributors don’t think global intellectual history is a good idea — it may even reflect imperialistic agendas — while others want to make sure everyone acknowledges that the field for the spread of concepts, like the so-called global imagination itself, has never coincided with the geographical earth.

Fair enough. Even after such warnings are taken on board, however, there is much room for dispute about how to conceive of global intellectual exchange past and present.

If the emphasis falls on interchange, there are multiple models to pursue and elaborate. A personalized version looks at how idiosyncratic individuals served as go-betweens between disparate cultures — a phenomenon of critical significance in the early modern period that has surely not gone way. As in Mitchell’s novel, much in this approach depends on character and accident. Another very different model focuses on linguistic mediation— often translation of specific terms like “the economy” or key texts like Smith’s Wealth of Nations. A third way of framing a global intellectual history is interested in the collective networks that get established and provide the basis for individual encounters or specific acts of translation. A final vision of global intellectual history wants to trace the traffic in ideas back to the material transformations that grounds the life of concepts, whether in these were changes in human mobility, technological invention, or economic interaction – the relevance of all of which Mitchell’s novel makes vivid.

An Agenda at the Threshold

What seems obvious, for the moment, is that global humanities has a past worth recovering. And our hope is that at this preliminary moment in the construction of a global intellectual history, the best first step is to try to envision different models by which the field might be organized, since surely some are better than others.

You can read the full article at Interdisciplines here.

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