13 May, 2013Issue 22.2HistoryPhilosophyPolitics & SocietyWorld Politics

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An Atlas of Thought

Tom Cutterham

An Atlas of ThoughtDavid Armitage
Foundations of Modern International Thought
Cambridge University Press, 2012
311 pages
ISBN 978-0521001694


In his presidential address to the American Historical Association in 1929, the Progressive historian and educationalist James Harvey Robinson recounted a story from the British writer Thomas Burke. “Now and then [during his childhood] he had a revelation,” said Robinson. “He would soon realize, however, that this new flash of insight was after all nothing more than what he had always known all along—no more, indeed, than everyone had always known. This curious experience comes to all thoughtful persons.” It certainly happens to historians. Two pages later Robinson declared: “national history seems to us more provincial than it formerly did.” What was needed, he said, quoting another transatlantic author, H. G. Wells, was a history oriented to “the common adventure of mankind”.

The territory David Armitage maps in his new essay collection could be called the common intellectual adventure of mankind. Intellectual historians have been notably slow to recalibrate their vision to encompass this commonality. Economic, political, and military historians took the same turn long ago, prompted by the flash of clarity that world war and economic crisis gave to international interconnectedness. Fernand Braudel and his fellow Annalistes deserve as much credit as H.G. Wells for grasping this reality; postcolonial Marxists like C.L.R. James and historical sociologists like Immanuel Wallerstein continued to uncover the global nature of modern historical experience long before globalisation was a conceptual commonplace.

When it comes to the history of ideas though, it would be fair to say the map is very partial and the exploration at a very early stage. “At the end of the twentieth century,” Armitage writes, “research on the international dimensions of intellectual history was mostly fragmentary and remained marginal to the broader historical discipline.” If not for the progress made by other branches of history, the task might seem impossibly ambitious. How could we comprehend the play of influence and intersection in human thought across the unbounded globe? Armitage’s central gesture is to begin with the history of how the international itself has been understood and theorised. By historicising international thought, we might start to internationalise the history of thought itself.

In order to pursue this gesture, Armitage calls on some familiar figures, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, and a particularly familiar problem in the history of political thought, the state of nature. There’s no doubt that Hobbes at least is treated by modern international relations theory as one of the canonical “founding fathers” of the field. But how he got there is a “problem […] for historians, political theorists and international relations theorists alike”, considering how little he explicitly said about the relations between nations and how little he was understood as an international thinker in his own time and in succeeding centuries. The birth of Hobbes as an international theorist could be taken to constitute the birth of international relations as a discipline. Thus Armitage can return to the Hobbes of the 17th century for the foundations of that yet-to-be-realised endeavour.

Hobbes, Locke, and their fellow early modern political theorists imagined the state of nature–that is, a condition of human life without government or social structure–in order to approach the concepts of human nature and natural law. What were men like without the supposedly artificial intrusion of authority? No such condition, of course, was available to be closely observed by these writers or their readers. But take the international realm in which sovereign empires coexist and clash and you have a surprisingly close (though always imperfect) analogy. Hobbes’s ingenious move was to use the international world to talk about individuals and their relationship to society. Armitage traces the way scholars of international relations reversed the direction of that insight, generating an implicit theory of international relations.

Locke’s case is different: for all his continuing influence on political theory, he has no theoretical avatar in contemporary international debate. The complaint of an “imbalance […] between the study of political theory and that of international theory” is central to this volume: “at least one major task for the history of international thought is to correct that imbalance by finally giving due attention to reflection on international affairs by past thinkers like Locke.” So Armitage’s approach here is to perform the excavation himself, using knowledge of Locke’s active involvement in international–and especially imperial–affairs to recreate him as an international thinker. The result aligns Armitage with forceful critics of Locke, like Domenico Losurdo, who put his defence of slavery and colonial expansion centre stage, exposing “the complicity of Lockean liberalism with English colonialism.”

Neither Losurdo nor Armitage was the first to make this connection, of course. One of the earliest critics of Locke on slavery was also the inventor of the word “international”: Jeremy Bentham. Armitage’s essay on Bentham marks a return from the attempt to historicise international thought to the larger project of “the globalisation of the history of political thought”. As in the case of Hobbes, his focus here is on reception rather than original context or intent. It is Bentham’s global popularity that makes him interesting to Armitage. “His reputation lies at the circumference; and the lights of his understanding are reflected, with increasing lustre, on the other side of the globe,” wrote the essayist William Hazlitt in 1825. Bentham himself, whose preserved body still resides on display at University College London, had ambitions equal to the scale of Armitage’s project: “The Globe is the field of Dominion to which the author aspires” he wrote in 1786.

By collecting these essays in one volume, Armitage lays his own claim to the globe as a field of knowledge, if not domination. But his vision is more prospective than panoptic. Each essay here approaches its subject from a different angle–including each of the three on Locke–and more importantly, each offers a different way of formulating and questioning the concept of international thought. That history is ultimately international is no new insight; the challenge is to incorporate it into historical practice. If H. G. Wells’s modernist story of “the common adventure of mankind” was a totalising one, suspicious of the multiplicity and chaos of human experience, Armitage has set out here to suggest a fully postmodern pattern of exploration: a vision as fractured and kaleidoscopic, as persistently resistant to categorisation and control, as the global experience itself.

Tom Cutterham is reading for a D.Phil. in History at St Hugh’s College, Oxford. He is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.