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Arcana and Ambiguity in Intellectual History

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EdwardBaring, Converts to the Real: Catholicism and the Making of Continental Philosophy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019)

StefanosGeroulanos, Transparency in Postwar France: A Critical History of the Present (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2017)

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 October 2021

Knox Peden*
School of Languages and Cultures, University of Queensland
*Corresponding author. E-mail:


As history became a narrative of contexts as well as of actions, the moral and exemplary character of the actions related was affected … The narrative of action became a narrative of mystery, meaning not only the mystery of random contingency, but the mystery of how decision and action were framed in the face of contingency. Whether action had proved successful or disastrous, that which was exemplary about it was at the same time that which was arcane, formed in the depths of the human heart as it interacted with fortune.

The epigraph comes from the “prelude” to the second volume of Barbarism and Religion, J. G. A. Pocock's masterpiece devoted to reconstructing the manifold contexts for understanding Edward Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. In this passage, Pocock is addressing the transformation of historical understanding in the wake of the Pyrrhonian controversy that dominated early modern learning. Reconstruction of contexts, Pocock argued, was one answer to skepticism about our knowledge of the past, but it could not come at the expense of an understanding of action and motivations. For his part, Gibbon sought a neoclassical synthesis designed to generate “narrative at the point where the exemplary became the arcane.” Such is the paradox of historiography as a modern craft. That which gives a historical episode its value (its exemplarity) is typically that which escapes the explanatory frameworks we bring to it (its arcana).

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Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press

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1 Pocock, J. G. A., Barbarism and Religion, vol. 2, Narratives of Civil Government (Cambridge, 1999), 9CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 Cf. Popkin, Richard, The History of Scepticism from Savonarola to Bayle (Oxford, 2003)Google Scholar.

3 Pocock, Barbarism and Religion, 9.

4 See Dunstall, Andrew, “The Concept of Transparency, Its History, and the Theory of Begriffsgeschichte,” History and Theory 98/1 (2019), 460–70CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Nicholas Heron, “A Semiotic Approach to the History of Concepts,” in Giovanni Menegalle and Danilo Scholz, eds., A Symposium on Transparency in Postwar France, Syndicate 2020,

5 Baring, Edward, The Young Derrida and French Philosophy, 1945–1968 (Cambridge, 2011)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 In considering Converts to the Real alongside Transparency in Postwar France, I do not intend to downplay what is no doubt the primary context for its appearance (and the likely subject of a future work of intellectual history): the meteoric upsurge of interest in the Catholic contribution to twentieth-century European political and intellectual history. Three other works of this moment, all likewise from Harvard University Press, are Chamedes, Giuliana, A Twentieth-Century Crusade: The Vatican's Battle to Remake Christian Europe (Cambridge, MA, 2019)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Chappel, James, Catholic Modern: The Challenge of Totalitarianism and the Remaking of the Church (Cambridge, MA, 2018)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Shortall, Sarah, Soldiers of God in a Secular World: Catholic Theology and Twentieth-Century French Politics (Cambridge, MA, 2021)Google Scholar.

7 Gordon, Peter E., Migrants in the Profane: Critical Theory and the Question of Secularization (New Haven, 2020)Google Scholar. Cf. Baring, Edward and Gordon, Peter E., eds., The Trace of God: Derrida and Religion (New York, 2014)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 Cf. Chappel, James, “Beyond Tocqueville: A Plea to Stop ‘Taking Religion Seriously’,” Modern Intellectual History 10/ 3 (2013), 697708CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Sarah Shorthall's essential rejoinder in her “Lost in Translation: Religion and the Writing of History,” Modern Intellectual History 13/1 (2016), 273–86.

9 See Jeanpierre, Laurent, “Minor Concept, Major Insights?”, in Menegalle and Scholz, A Symposium on Transparency in Postwar France; and Sarah Shurts's review in American Historical Review 124/3 (2019), 1156–7Google Scholar.

10 Geroulanos, Stefanos, An Atheism That Is Not Humanist Emerges in French Thought (Stanford, 2010)Google Scholar.

11 Baring, Edward, “Enthusiastic Reading: Rethinking Contextualization in Intellectual History,” Modern Intellectual History 14/1 (2017), 257–68CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 Recovering and insisting upon the distinction between secular and sacred history has been an important feature of Ian Hunter's work over the past decade. For one major statement see Hunter, Ian, “Secularization: The Birth of a Modern Combat Concept,” Modern Intellectual History 12/1 (2015), 132CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For an applied case see Hunter, “Giorgio Agamben's genealogy of office,” European Journal of Culture and Political Sociology 4/2 (2017), 166–99, especially where Hunter writes, “History for Agamben thus assumes the form of sacred history: the sudden appearance of events—here, the office paradigm—that are real symbols of the transcendent Being that manifests and conceals itself in them” (ibid., 168). It remains an open question whether an account that “assumes the form of sacred history” is in fact the same as sacred history, but then again the answer to such a question remains orthogonal to the kinds of questions that are permitted by the secular history that Hunter aims to write. Geroulanos's history is a “sacred history” in Hunter's optic to the extent that it intimates truths beyond the empirical facts recounted in its pages.

13 I attempted to reckon with this dilemma in Peden, Knox, “Truth and Meaning in Historical Interpretation: A Davidsonian Approach,” History and Theory 58/3 (2019, 327–41CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

14 Jay, Martin, Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision of Twentieth-Century French Thought (Berkeley, 1993), 120CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Geroulanos is aware that his book invites comparison with Jay's. The endnotes display both the debt and the distance taken. Where Jay's work offered a sympathetic critique of the tradition under review, defending an essentially Habermasian line against those seeking to have done with modernity's unfinished project, Geroulanos identifies more closely with his subjects.

15 For a contemporary iteration of this view see Marion, Jean-Luc, On Descartes’ Passive Thought: The Myth of Cartesian Dualism, trans. Gschwandtner, Christina M. (Chicago, 2018)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

16 Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, The Visible and the Invisible, ed. Lefort, Claude, trans. Lingis, Alphonso (Evanston, 1968), 155Google Scholar.

17 Jacques-Alain Miller, “Suture (Elements for a Logic of the Signifier),” in Peter Hallward and Knox Peden, eds., Concept and Form, vol. 1, Selections from the Cahiers pour l'Analyse (London, 2012), 91–101, at 101.

18 See Peden, Knox, “Neither/Nor,” History and Theory 51 (2012), 257–69CrossRefGoogle Scholar, especially: “Antifoundationalism founds; transcendence is transcended; and Jesus secularizes Christianity. Time and again, An Atheist [sic] that is Not Humanist elucidates, with an exceptional rigor, a discourse in which what is ontologically denied is methodologically deployed in the discourse itself” (ibid., 262). To this list we can now add irreversible reversibility.

19 Heron, “A Semiotic Approach to the History of Concepts,” makes a similar point.

20 Scheler, Max, Ressentiment, ed. Coser, Lewis A., trans. Holdheim, William W. (Glencoe, IL, 1961)Google Scholar.

21 Lachterman, David R., “Translator's Introduction,” in Scheler, Max, Selected Philosophical Writings, trans. Lachterman, David R. (Evanston, 1973), xi–xli, at xxviiGoogle Scholar. With friends like these …

22 Cf. Flynn, Gabriel and Murray, Paul D., eds., with the assistance of Patricia Kelly, Ressourcement: A Movement for Renewal in Twentieth-Century Catholic Theology (Oxford, 2012)Google Scholar.

23 Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, Signs, trans. McCleary, Richard C. (Evanston, 1964), 142Google Scholar.

24 Pocock, Barbarism and Religion, 9.