PROFESSOR ANNELIEN DE DIJN

Freedom: An Unruly History
MID-CAREER FELLOW: NOVEMBER 2018 – OCTOBER 2019

Annelien de Dijn is a Professor of Modern Political History at Utrecht University. Her research focuses on the history of political thought in Europe and in the United States from 1700 to the present.  She is the author of French Political Thought from Montesquieu to Tocqueville: Liberty in a Levelled Society (Cambridge University Press, 2008, paperback edition October 2011) and she is currently working on her second book, tentatively titled Freedom: An Unruly History (under contract with Harvard University Press).

Professor de Dijn has held visiting appointments at Columbia University, Cambridge University, the Remarque Institute at NYU, the University of Notre Dame, and the University of California at Berkeley. A past recipient of Fulbright and Alexander von Humboldt fellowships, she was educated at the University of Leuven in Belgium and at Columbia University.

Abstract

I apply for an ISRF Mid-Career Fellowship in order to complete my book manuscript ‘Freedom: An Unruly History’, which is currently under contract with Harvard University Press. My book traces the genealogy of a key political concept: freedom. It shows that current understandings of freedom – the idea that freedom depends on the limitation of state power – must be understood as a deliberate and dramatic rupture with long-established ways of thinking about liberty. For centuries, I show, most people in the so-called West identified freedom not with being left alone by the state, but with their ability to exercise control over the way in which they were governed. They had, in other words, what might best be described as a ‘democratic’ conception of freedom. It only became common to think about freedom as something that required the limitation of state power in the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This shift in thinking about freedom was partly motivated by a genuine concern with the position of vulnerable minorities such as religious dissenters. But more often the fight against democracy in the name of freedom was provoked by fears that the newly enfranchised masses would use state power for economic redistribution.  

In tracing the genealogy of freedom, my book draws on the methods and best practices of a different disciplines, including history, political theory, sociology and cultural studies. Written in a direct and engaging style, it will appeal not just to professional historians and philosophers, but also to a broader audience of politicians, journalists, students and other general readers. In short, my book proposes a new approach, and suggests new solutions, to one of the most topical questions of contemporary politics: how to be free in a society or as a society.

The Research Idea

Today, we tend to think of freedom as something that is best protected by circumscribing the boundaries of legitimate state activity. But has this always been the case? Is this idea of freedom really the only or even the most natural way of thinking about what it means to be free in a society or as a society? That is the question I set out to answer in my book. In order to do so, I survey over two thousand years of thinking and talking about freedom in what is conventionally known as ‘the West’ – starting with the invention of freedom in ancient Greece and bringing the story all the way up to the present.

The results of this investigation are startling. Our current conception of freedom must be understood, I show, as a deliberate and dramatic rupture with long-established ways of thinking about liberty. For centuries, most people identified freedom with their ability to exercise control over the way in which they were governed. They had, in other words, what might best be described as a ‘democratic’ conception of freedom. It only became common to think about freedom as something that required the limitation of state power in the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This shift in thinking about freedom was partly motivated by concerns about vulnerable minorities. But more often the fight against democracy in the name of freedom was provoked by fears that the newly enfranchised masses would use state power for economic redistribution.

Background

By writing the long history of freedom, I aim first and foremost to provide an alternative for textbook accounts of that subject. In such accounts, the invention of ‘modern’ ways of thinking about freedom is seen as the natural outcome of secular trends in European history, such as the growth of religious tolerance (John Rawls, Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy, 2009) or the creation of market societies (Ellen Meiksins Wood, Liberty and Property: A Social History of Western Political Thought from Renaissance to Enlightenment, 2012). My book aims to militate against that complacent, irenic view of the history of freedom, in which ancient conceptions of liberty were slowly and inexorably replaced by more modern (‘better’) ways of thinking about how to be free. Instead, my book emphasizes disagreement and radical discontinuity in Western debates about freedom. 

In telling a different story about the history of freedom, this book also foregrounds very different dramatis personae than traditional textbook histories. The ideas of canonical philosophers such as Plato or John Locke are by no means neglected. But this book devotes as much or even more attention to historians, playwrights and novelists such as Herodotus or Edouard de Laboulaye, who are all shown to have made major contributions to the history of freedom. In addition, this book also draws on a variety of other sources, such as dictionaries, coins and engravings. While these sources are often neglected, they offer important insights into the history of freedom.

The Focus

This book promises to change our understanding of one of today’s key political values: freedom. The concept of freedom – understood as an absence of state interference – plays a central role in today’s public debate. In the United States, angry citizens continue to protest health care reforms on the grounds that a universal mandate imposes ‘slavery’. Across the Atlantic, similar concerns about the ‘ red tape’ produced by Brussels played a crucial role in the run-up to Brexit. 

As my book sets out to show, however, thinking about freedom as being left alone by the state is not the only or even the most natural way of thinking about what it means to be free in a society or as a society. Understanding the long history of freedom shows that for centuries, people had a very different and more democratic understanding of freedom. Moreover, my book also reveals something crucial about the genealogy of current ways of thinking about freedom. Today’s most ardent freedom fighters like to portray themselves as the heirs of the revolutionaries of the 1770s and 1780s who created our modern democracies. But with their call for the limitation of government power, they far more resemble the classical liberals of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who tried to at least partially undo the work of these earlier revolutionaries.

Theoretical Novelty

In addition to providing an alternative for existing textbook accounts of the history of freedom, my book also aims at theoretical innovation by engaging critically with more specialist literature on the subject. More specifically, my book aims to contribute to the debate about the so-called ‘republican’ conception of freedom. Following pioneering work by Quentin Skinner and Philip Pettit, there is now a general consensus in the literature that republican ways of thinking about freedom provide a historically important alternative for today’s dominant liberal paradigm. But the exact nature of the republican conception of freedom remains much more contested. In particular, scholars continue to debate the relationship between republicanism and the democratic tradition. Quite a few scholars, both those sympathetic to the republican tradition and those more critical of it, claim that republicanism requires adherence to institutions meant to uphold the rule of law rather than popular self-government.   

One of the arguments put forward in my book is that this a-democratic reading of the republican tradition is wrong. Instead, the overwhelming majority of political thinkers that either described themselves as republican or that are typically understood as belonging to this tradition adhered to the idea that a person could only be free under the kind of government that gave the people (or at least adult males) control over the way in which they were governed. Hence, I consistently use the term ‘ democratic’ conception of freedom throughout my book instead of the more familiar ‘ republican’.

Methodology

My book project uses a genealogical approach to study the concept of freedom. Inspired by the work of Friedrich Nietzsche and Michel Foucault, such an approach uses the tools of history to critically reflect on the present. Thus, my research starts from a careful analysis of a wide range of sources to reconstruct different uses of the concept of freedom over time. But the genealogical method is not just historical, it is also critical. By revealing the existence of different understandings of a particular concept in the past, the genealogical approach allows us, first and foremost, to question the self-evident nature of our own understanding of the analyzed concept. In turn, this exercise opens up spaces for rethinking existing meanings. Second, by unearthing different, forgotten understandings of a concept, we introduce new terms and ideas into the debate that might turn out to be more coherent or robust than the terms and concepts already in use, thus moving the debate to new ground.   

Drawing on the methods and approaches of different disciplines including history and philosophy, the genealogical method is interdisciplinary in its very conception. But its interdisciplinary character is also revealed in its field of application, as it used across a wide range of social sciences. The genealogical approach is frequently applied not just by political theorists and historians, but also by sociologists, political scientists, social geographers and scholars working in cultural studies.

Work Plan

My book project consists of an introduction, a conclusion and five chapters, totaling ca. 150,000 words. I have currently completed two of the five chapters and I plan to complete the rest of the manuscript between September 2018 and August 2019. 

Work plan: 

– Sept-Oct 2018: write Chapter 3

– Nov-Dec 2018: primary research for Chapter 4

-Jan-Feb 2019: write Chapter 4

– March-April 2019: primary research for Chapter 5

– May-June 2019: write Chapter 5

– July 2019: write introduction and conclusion

– August 2019: revise manuscript, put together bibliography

Outcome

The longer-term outcome of this project will be the publication of my manuscript by Harvard University Press, where it is currently under contract. Considering the topical nature of the subject, I also expect that my book will be translated; thus a Dutch-language publisher (Horizon) has already expressed interest in translating it into Dutch.