Peter de Bolla’s Human Rights Edifice

By Martin WoessnerJune 25, 2014

The Architecture of Concepts by Peter de Bolla

“Take care of freedom,” the late American philosopher Richard Rorty once remarked, “and truth will take care of itself.” It was his pragmatic attempt — one of many, actually, over the course of a long and distinguished career — to change the nature and the focus of the usual philosophical debates. Rorty wanted nothing more than to bring about positive change in the world, and he thought that the best way to do so was to stop worrying so much about getting things right philosophically, and to start making things work in the world pragmatically. It is less important to be right about freedom, in other words, than it is to be free. In time, the concept will catch up with the reality.

Rorty thought that the search for philosophical foundations was a misguided response to such real-world social and political problems as inequality, poverty, and suffering. The cause of human rights, for Rorty, was a case in point. As he explained in a 1993 Oxford Amnesty Lecture, philosophers of human rights were going about things all wrong. Rather than search for a rational, definitive “moral knowledge” of human rights based on foundational precepts and principles, as so many of them had been doing without much success, Rorty suggested a different approach. Memorably, he called for the proliferation of “sad and sentimental stories” — memoirs, news reports, and novels that might help us to put ourselves “in the shoes of the despised and the oppressed,” all those for whom human rights were neither concept nor reality. Rorty maintained that weare “moved to action” not by the rational argument of a philosophy lecture, but by the emotional appeal of those “sad and sentimental stories” that tug at our heartstrings. If Uncle Tom’s Cabin, for example, was more likely to convince one of the injustice of slavery than the Critique of Pure Reason, then why couldn’t the same be said for any number of human rights–related novels and memoirs?

In a similar vein, historian Lynn Hunt has suggested that the origins of our modern conception of human rights might be traced back to the wide dissemination of sentimental literature in the 18th century. According to her, it was no accident that the birth of the novel — and specifically the epistolary novel, which forces readers to see the world through another’s eyes — corresponded to the age of Enlightenment and Revolution. In her book Inventing Human Rights, Hunt suggests that cultures of sympathy made documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the American Bill of Rights, and the French Declarations of the Rights of Man and Citizen as well as the Rights of Woman not only possible, but effective.

Peter de Bolla thinks that all of this is nonsense, or, at the very least, rather “wide of the mark.” In his new book, The Architecture of Concepts: The Historical Formation of Human Rights, the Cambridge professor of cultural history and aesthetics takes aim at the sentimentalist account of human rights, but that’s just for starters. Not only does he argue against the likes of Hunt and Rorty, he also suggests, more sweepingly, that our current understanding of human rights differs rather drastically from the 18th-century “rights of man” talk. For him, there is no straight line from the Bill of Rights (whether English or American) to the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations in 1948. Limiting his focus to the Anglophone world of the 18th century, de Bolla offers three distinct but overlapping accounts of how the “rights of man” concept emerged in the wake of the Enlightenment and around the time of the American and French Revolutions, but disappeared quickly thereafter, the victim of ideological and political retrenchment. Each account gets its own chapter — the first tackles vast troves of 18th-century political pamphlets, the second explores the records of the First Continental Congress in America, and the third analyzes the dissemination and reception of Thomas Paine’s tract Rights of Man. For reasons that are partly explained in a long opening chapter, de Bolla adopts a slightly different methodology in each of these chapters. It is an academic book through and through, but it is about a topic that has extra-academic consequences not only for how we think about rights, but also for how we advocate for them in the world.

Like other recent works, most notably Samuel Moyn’s much-discussed The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, The Architecture of Concepts sets out to debunk the myth that human rights have been around for a good long time, and that their historical pedigree is proof of our moral growth over the centuries. Both Moyn and de Bolla want to draw our attention to the fact that the human rights storyline has not been one of slow and steady progress from the Enlightenment to the present. Given the bloody outlines of the last century alone, it is difficult to disagree. Beyond this point, however, Moyn’s and de Bolla’s books have little in common. Moyn’s is essentially an argument for the relative novelty of human rights (despite its many legal, philosophical, political, and even theological antecedents, the idea of human rights has been a force in the world only since the late ’60s or early ’70s, really), whereas de Bolla’s tries to reimagine the concept of human rights almost from scratch. One (Moyn’s) wants us to consider dropping the received genealogy of human rights (and perhaps slough off the need for such genealogies altogether), while the other (de Bolla’s) proposes dismantling and reassembling it.

 To put it plainly, de Bolla wants to move our current conception of human rights to sturdier foundations — hence the “architectural” focus of his book. He is fascinated by the ways in which concepts, like so many different architectural designs, carry the weight that intellectual and cultural aspirations place on top of them. Some concepts hold steady under the burden of our wants and needs, thus allowing for further building. Others simply collapse, forcing us to start over again if we can. Looking closely at 18th-century discussions of rights, de Bolla finds ample evidence of this dynamic, which might, he thinks, be instructive for us today.

According to de Bolla, The Architecture of Concepts has three distinct aims: to outline a theory of concepts that might help us to understand the nature of “conceptual architecture”; to highlight the relevance and usefulness of new methodologies within the so-called “digital humanities” initiative that might help us track the ways in which such architectures change and adapt over time; and to apply these theories and methods to the history of the concept of human rights. If all this sounds a little technical, that is because it is. One suspects that de Bolla is wary of the sentimental account of the origin of human rights because, for him, there is no room for sentiment in either his “conceptual architecture” or his approved methodologies.

Admittedly, dismantling the sentimental genealogy of human rights is not the primary aim of de Bolla’s book. He is more interested in the historical evolution of what he calls the “conceptual architecture” of ideas, and a lengthy opening chapter unfurls a sophisticated plan for investigating this phenomenon. Given that departments, research programs, and entire traditions of interpretation have tackled just this topic — with varying degrees of success, naturally — this is no small ambition. From the history of concepts, or Begriffsgeschichte, of Reinhart Koselleck to the Cambridge School writings of Quentin Skinner and J.G.A. Pocock, much ink has been spilled concerning the appropriate methods for investigating the historical meanings and legacies of such loaded terms as “democracy,” “liberty,” and “republicanism,” to name but a few. Adding “human rights” to the list makes sense, but de Bolla wants to do more than extend preexisting approaches. He wants to offer a new one.

The “conceptual turn” called for in The Architecture of Concepts owes less to Koselleck, Skinner, or Pocock than it does to the little-known American philosopher of art Morris Weitz. Extrapolating from Weitz’s analytically inclined account of the concept of art, de Bolla outlines a theory of concepts that is at once expansive and extremely delimiting. For de Bolla, following Weitz, concepts are “cultural entities” that are “supra-agential” — in other words, they exist over and above us, beyond the confines of our limited and narrow, inherently subjective perspectives. They are part of the “common unshareable space of culture.” But like cultures, they are also mobile and malleable. If they are not Plato’s eternal forms, exactly, concepts are nevertheless as close as we might ever get to them. Abstracted from the messy realm of intersubjective exchange, they float free of any one individual’s attempts to nail them down, sometimes they even float free of the words with which we try to label them.

Bringing Weitz’s work to a wider audience is surely a laudable endeavor, but it raises the unavoidable question — how well does the aesthetic understanding of concepts charted by Weitz translate into a political or legal understanding of them? Artistic concepts and political concepts may have much in common in terms of structure, but rarely are they interchangeable in terms of their applications in the world. Arguing about whether or not something constitutes a work of art is rather different from arguing about what might or might not qualify as a violation of human rights.

As if to address just such concerns, de Bolla proposes a “typology of conceptual kinds” based on their varying “function, structure, modality, and phase.” He outlines the ways in which some concepts, taken together, might form a “network” via the “architectural elements” of “the hinge, the deposit, and the platform” — that is, some concepts connect to other concepts (hence the “hinge”), some contain other concepts within them (“the deposit”), and still others serve as foundations for the more or less elaborate conceptual edifices that soar above them (the “platform”). In addition to this theoretical toolkit, de Bolla also recommends a “forensics” that might isolate the “grammar” and “syntax” of concepts as they emerge and mutate over time. Like Wittgenstein, who influenced Morris Weitz, de Bolla relies upon both linguistic and architectural metaphors to make his case. What de Bolla does not do in The Architecture of Concepts, though,is say very much about the humans who might make use of these “conceptual kinds,” these “architectural elements” or “grammars.” Like a true architect, he seems more interested in the structures being built than in who might build them — or indeed, in who might be housed within them.

De Bolla’s rather cold and antiseptic approach is in keeping with the methodologies that he chooses to utilize. Adopting the tools and methods of what some academics are calling the “digital humanities,” de Bolla fills his chapters with charts and data tables. This is especially true of the second chapter, which analyzes Enlightenment-era discussions of “the rights of mankind.” Thanks to digitization, de Bolla is able to scan databases such as Eighteenth Century Collections Online for traces of the human rights concept in these debates. Or to put it in the lingo of digital scholarship, he is able to mine them for “frequencies of word use.” How often do the words “human rights” appear in Anglophone texts printed in the 1760s, in the 1770s, in the 1780s? How often do words such as “liberty” or “duty” appear within five words of “rights”? You get the picture.

De Bolla does a lot with his database-derived information. Not only does he chart word frequency (“incidence”), he also accounts for word association (“orbital drag”) and word order (“grammar”). At times, it all comes across as a word-cloud approach to the intellectual-historical past. (To be fair, de Bolla does not use word clouds, but he mentions their potential promise in one of his footnotes.) Such quantification is interesting, but it does not always convince. To say that “rights” usually preceded “privileges” or “liberties” in 18th-century English-language texts is not necessarily proof that 18th-century Anglophone culture saw “rights” as the foundation for “privileges” and “liberties,” is it? Here again, aesthetic observation sits unevenly with political understanding: couldn’t it also be the case that this word order, this “grammar,” was constituted less by political association than by certain stylistic or rhetorical tendencies? And if so, how might de Bolla’s sweeping methods allow us to access these stylistic decisions with any subtlety?

For some time now, iconoclastic scholars of literature such as Franco Moretti have been advocating just such methods of “distant reading,” which turn texts into vast storehouses of searchable data. A student of Moretti’s, Matthew Jockers, has even spoken of this new approach to the literary record as constituting a kind of “macroanalysis.” De Bolla adopts such tactics with enthusiasm. Indeed, he is a digital humanities cheerleader of sorts. As he sees it, the time is ripe for intellectual history, that age-old discipline of high ideas and big concepts, to abandon its analog ways and enter into the digital age. In his opinion, “the move from the analog to the digital with respect to archival resources is game changing,” and it offers a novel way to reexamine what Arthur O. Lovejoy, who is commonly thought of as the father of modern intellectual history as an academic discipline, called “unit ideas.” So long narrative; here comes the number crunching.

But the truth of the matter is that de Bolla himself uses analog methods as much as he does digital ones. And when his book relies upon more traditional approaches to understanding the history of human rights, such as close reading, reception study, and the history of the book — the discussion of the publication and dissemination of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man in chapter four, for example, is a tour de force — de Bolla’s argument seems sounder as well as somehow warmer, more human(e).

Paine is the closest thing to a protagonist that The Architecture of Concepts has. But he is overshadowed by all of the data under which de Bolla buries him. It is an irony, perhaps, that just as philosophers and intellectual historians are training their sights on the human practices (Pierre Hadot) and personas (Ian Hunter) that animate the history of ideas, de Bolla wants to turn in the other direction, away from thinking, working, living-and-breathing human beings toward subjectless architectures and grammars. His is a human rights history with the human left out. As he puts it:

I am concerned less about what individuals in the past may have thought, or indeed what they said or wrote, than about trying to uncover the structures that enabled them to think — that is, in exhuming the deep archaeology of a historically contingent network of culturally dispersed concepts.

All this seems to reify human rights — to take them from the realm of historical actors and lived contexts, placing them instead into the arid domain of networks theory, or into the musty realm of archaeology. De Bolla’s clinical approach results in a “forensic conceptual analysis.” A reliance on such terminology leads him, in chapter three, to describe the First Continental Congress as “a kind of experimental laboratory for generating conceptual forms” or, later, as a “petri dish” in which new concepts of rights were “cultured” — hardly the most stirring descriptions of the debates and exchanges carried out by real people, and that would lead, eventually, to the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Such imagery reveals something essential about de Bolla’s approach, and about the digital humanities endeavor more generally: the amazing things we can do with “big data” thanks to digital quantification and algorithm manipulation still fail to capture the curious nuances of metaphor, narrative, and rhetoric — to say nothing of lived experience — that make human history, well, human. We have to ask ourselves, which approach is more relevant for the cause of human rights today?

De Bolla’s concern for contemporary human rights is clearly evident, and there can be no doubt that he has undertaken the studies that comprise his carefully composed, intricately argued book with the ultimate aim of contributing to the cause of human rights. Conceptually, he prefers Paine’s “rights of man” concept to our current, perhaps too liberal (in the classical sense of liberalism as a defense of individual liberties) conception of “human rights,” because it is a “singular universal” that remains fundamentally “aspirational.” De Bolla thinks that contemporary conceptions of human rights rely too heavily upon “the rights of man” instead of “rights of man,” and, as the definite article denotes, he feels that they are consequently too closed and too delimiting to be of any use in a truly global age. In other words, they are narrow lists of preordained privileges and entitlements — rights to “life, liberty, and security of person,” for example — that resist expansion, extension, and/or revision. They protect individuals, but often at the expense of wider social or communal needs. These are some of the reasons, de Bolla explains, why the discourse of human rights is commonly criticized for being Eurocentric and imperialistic, something invented by the West and imposed upon the rest (although Paine did memorably proclaim, in Common Sense,that “the cause of America is in great measure the cause of all mankind”).

De Bolla’s worries about the conceptual limitations of our current understanding of human rights are very valid. And, abstract as it is, it is hard not to sympathize with his yearning for a more universal, more open understanding of right(s). But demolishing the current architecture of human rights in favor of a scheme rescued from the deep recesses of the historical past might be an approach more drastic than what we currently need. Perhaps, rather than rebuilding human rights all over again, this time from the foundation offered by Paine’s Rights of Man, we should consider simply abandoning the search for foundations altogether, turning our focus from principles and plans back, as Rorty might have argued, to persons — and asking ourselves, along the way, how persons should relate not just to each other, but to animals and the environment, too. Maybe it is just a question of what works best — a new “conceptual architecture” or more of those “sad and sentimental stories.” Only time will tell.


Martin Woessner is Associate Professor of History & Society at The City College of New York’s Center for Worker Education.

LARB Contributor

Martin Woessner is associate professor of History & Society at the City College of New York’s Center for Worker Education. He is the author of Terrence Malick and the Examined Life (forthcoming with University of Pennsylvania Press) and Heidegger in America (Cambridge University Press, 2011).


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