What is Global Intellectual History – If It Should Exist At All?

Moyn Global-Intellectual-History

Samuel Moyn
Harvard University

Andrew Sartori
New York University

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 and 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 a contraband Bible. 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 before. 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.

How do ideas travel the world? We rarely ask this question, even though we talk everyday about the spread of democracy, human rights, and other values on which international affairs now depend. We will never be able to debate the meaning of our most cherished ideas if we fail to focus on how — and whether — they have been propagated and embraced across the boundaries of space, language, and culture.

Now historians are asking how to make sense of the global space of intellectual exchange. Has such a global space always existed, or is it something new? Historians are debating what the most important factors are in explaining how ideas get from here to there. What role does the translation of words and knowledge-brokers play in rendering ideas globally mobile, if that is in fact what they are? Continue reading “What is Global Intellectual History – If It Should Exist At All?”