Robert Darnton

Alex Pang, a coworker at IFTF whose background is history and sociology of science, recommended a strange book by Robert Darnton on 18th century French culture. It’s got some great quotes in the intro, relevant to the limits of the Genealogy of Influence:

Where the historian of ideas traces the filiation of formal thought from philosopher to philosopher, the ethnographic historian studies the way ordinary people made sense of the world….We constantly need to be shaken out of a false sense of familiarity with the past, to be administered doses of culture shock….I do not see why cultural history should avoid the eccentric or embrace the average, for one cannot calculate the mean of meanings or reduce symbols to their lowest common denominator….Historians should be able to see how cultures shape ways of thinking, even for the greatest thinkers. A poet or philosopher may push a language to its limits, but at some point he will hit against the outer frame of meaning. Beyond it madness lies – the fate of Hölderlin and Nietzsche.

Although – I don’t believe in a limiting outer frame of meaning – I think writers help us expand the space of possible meaning and expression by using language in new ways.


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