Intellectual history

Most of my research thus far has been intellectual historical in nature; my projects have been chosen to cast light not only on particular questions pertinent to 'secularization,' but also on methodological questions in intellectual history.

My first major project took up Carl Schmitt's famous claim, in Political Theology, that "all the concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts." Hans Blumenberg, among others, challenged Schmitt's claim on the grounds of 'historical substantialism': 'concepts' are not the sort of thing whose transformations we can trace over time, for how will we know whether the concept that we identify in 'theological' and 'secular' forms is indeed the same concept?

To address this issue, I located a particular case: a homology between Malebranche's arguments for the sovereignty of the Church during the Jansenist controversies of the seventeenth century and Sieyès' arguments for the sovereignty of the National Assembly during the French Revolution. Rather than comparing 'concepts,' I instead took the locus of the question to pertain to arguments, which allowed me to identify the architecture of the rhetorical similarities between Malebranche and Sieyès: France,’ in Sieyès’ argument, is doing the work of ‘God’ in Malebranche’s. Critically, because France and God are different sorts of things, Sieyès’ argument has logical idiosyncrasies that prove its derivation from Malebranche’s ("General Will Beyond Rousseau").

There is a register, then, in which Schmitt's claim is coherent. ‘Secularization’ in this sense relates to theology’s implication in the historical sedimentation of ‘rationality’: the arguments with which we are familiar shape our sense of what constitutes a plausible argument, and this latter sense conditions the arguments that we offer. This ramifies for intellectual historical methodology insofar as it suggests an alternative to intellectual history's much-maligned "influence" while capturing what is salvageable (and historical) of the intuition behind the model. 

Having spelled out the sense in which 'secularization' obtains, in this particular case, I wrote an article suggesting that much recent French history has been colored by a secularization narrative that is not borne out by the historical record ("Justificatory arguments theological and political").

My first book project also ramifies for intellectual historical methodology, engaging with the attempts of the Cambridge School to retrieve the intentions of historical actors. Following on Quentin Skinner's work on early modern political theory, their inquiry into these intentions construes them in terms of 'discourses' of the actor's historical time and place. My argument shows, though, that not all texts are closely bound to discourses immediately proximate to authors; in some cases, we will be missing critical aspects of the intentions of authors if we confine our inquiry to 'discourses' and do not consider broader 'projects' of which particular works may subtly form parts.