Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Jonathan Israel reviews Peter de Bolla’s The Architecture of Concepts

Peter de Bolla. The Architecture of Concepts. The Bronx, N.Y.: Fordham University Press, 2013. 308 pp.

Reviewed by Jonathan Israel             

This new book by Peter de Bolla, professor of cultural history and aesthetics at the University of Cambridge, is a major contribution to historical methodology as well as to Enlightenment studies and our understanding of how modern universal human rights arose. By means of a systematic digital study, based on the entire spread of eighteenth-century English texts, of the shifts in the way key phrases and terms orbit around other key phrases and terms, he produces fully convincing and highly innovative conclusions. Firstly, he firmly separates pre-1776 uses of the term rights in English from the sudden emergence of  universal human rights in America around 1776 . The abruptness of the change in conceptual “entities” he rightly views as closely linked  to the irruption of a revolutionary consciousness in the Western world, first in America. In doing so, he conclusively disproves not just the traditional Harringtonian and Lockean historiographical constructs regarding the Declaration of Independence but every generalized explanation of the rise of human rights in modern history in terms of a broad Enlightenment rationalism and skepticism about the past. Not only is it fallacious to claim that the equality invoked by Paine and Jefferson, in 1776, was “very similar,” as many have tried to argue,  to the civil liberties derived from Locke but there is no validity either to the wider contention that Enlightenment “rationalism” as such shaped and produced the conviction that all men possessed natural and inalienable rights.       

Proof of the suddenness of the change to a comprehensive theory of innate human rights in America and Britain, around 1775–1776, also invalidates the new cultural history’s attempt to explain the invention of human rights in the eighteenth century in terms of gradual cultural shifts and reading novels. The best-known exponent of this thesis, Lynn Hunt, does in fact acknowledge that “before 1789, ‘rights of man’ had little cross-over into English.” But she nevertheless argues that the people were only gradually transformed into morally and socially more independent agents, less tied to communities and churches than in the past, and that this broad social-cultural process is reflected in the art and especially the epistolary novels of the era.  De Bolla, whose book demonstrates more clearly and fully than any other work just how sudden the conceptual break in the 1770s was, and how misleading conventional reliance on explanations rooted in Locke and Harringtonian republicanism is, likewise considers Hunt’s thesis “wide of the mark.” 

But if de Bolla devastatingly demonstrates the shortcomings and non-applicability of all the traditional historiography, he falls into new errors himself in trying to explain the sudden rise of universal human rights as a key Western concept. For he relies on a logic reminiscent of François Furet’s erroneous interpretation of the French Revolution: a new revolutionary consciousness arose suddenly under the stress of intense pressure and an emergency situation, pressure which heightened and transformed the political involvement of a large mass of individuals.  But this will not do. The revolutionary new “conceptual entity” as it first appears in Tom Paine’s Common Sense (1776) and the 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights, as well as Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, making rights universal, equal for all, inalienable, focused not on property but  pursuit of happiness, and the first duty of all government everywhere, is too close in tone, vocabulary and doctrine to the impressive pre-1776 French radical discussion of universal “rights.” On balance, it seems altogether likelier and more convincing that the American, and subsequent British, usage simply drew on the French radical material, the doctrine of universal rights as expounded in late Denis Diderot, Guillaume Thomas Raynal’s Histoire philosophique, Paul-Henri Thiry d’Holbach, Claude Adrien Helvétius and their followers than that the mutation in the conceptual architecture of rights stemmed from the pressures of the 1775–1776 emergency in America itself. It is in the French radical literature (of the early 1770s especially) that we first find an uncompromising, insistent emphasis on universality, equality, inalienability, and the priority of the rights of mankind over every constitution. De Bolla has done an excellent job in the main but like Anthony Pagden recently, in The Enlightenment and Why it still Matters, hopelessly traps himself through insufficient awareness of the Radical Enlightenment.