On December 11th, Professor Siep Stuurman (Utrecht University) will give the second lecture in the Global Intellectual History Lecture Series, on “Universal Concepts in Global History”.
The lecture will take place in the P.C. Hoofthuis 1.04, Spuistraat 134, 1012 VB Amsterdam, from 5PM to 6:30 PM, and will be followed by a drinks reception.
The question addressed in this lecture is: How to write the (global) history of universal concepts? My chief example will be the concept of equality. Universal concepts are always theory-charged. You cannot “see” universal equality like you can “see” economic or political inequality. The very notion of equality conjures up an imagined world. Equality is not simply a word but a concept. It is an abstract concept, that is, it abstracts from some aspects of “reality”, creating a space for the imagination the potential power of abstractions. Moreover, universals usually convey a double meaning, both factual and normative.
The lecture will discuss how universal concepts are invented, deployed, and transformed. As against the philosophical conceit that universal concepts are universal by definition I shall argue that the question the intellectual historian should ask is: how are such concepts universalized, across which dimensions, to what extent, and what are the limits of universalization. In this context, I will also discuss Christopher Hill’s distinction between “generalizing” universal (e.g., human rights) and “relativizing” universals (e.g. national self-determination).
My examples I will take from Diderot’s Encyclopédie (égalité naturelle, droit des gens). In particular, I will examine how universal concepts are transformed in the textual flow of such entries. Taking it from there, I will investigate how a global intellectual history can/should approach universal concepts.
Siep Stuurman is professor of the History of Ideas at Utrecht University. Before coming to Utrecht he was Jean Monnet Chair of European History at Erasmus University, Rotterdam, and professor of the History of Political Thought at the University of Amsterdam. Professor Stuurman has done work on the history of European liberalism and European state formation, on the history of early-modern feminist thought, and, more recently of equality and cultural in world history. He is a consulting editor of the Journal of the History of Ideas. Main publications include: Perspectives on Feminist Political Thought in European History: From the Middle ages to the Prresent, ed. with Tjitske Akkerman (London & New York, 1998), François Poulain de la Barre and the Invention of Modern Equality (Cambridge Mass., 2004, De Uitvinding van de Mensheid: Korte Wereldgeschiedenis van het Denken over Gelijkheid en Cultuurverschil (Amsterdam, 2009). Recent articles: “Common Humanity and Cultural Difference on the Sedentary-Nomadic Frontier: Herodotus, Sima Qian, and Ibn Khaldun,” in Global Intellectual History, eds. Moyn & Sartori (New York, 2013).