What brings scholars to their subjects? Scholars Discuss Their Intellectual Trajectories

One of the pleasures of attending the 2017-2018 Sawyer Seminar speaker series at Duke over the past three months has been to hear what circumstances, intellectual or otherwise, has pushed guest scholars to think about the intersections of corporations and international law. This was especially true for last week’s session, which featured the works of Andrew Fitzmaurice, Professor of History at the University of Sydney, and Steven Press, Associate Professor of History at Stanford. In this session, both historians of empire presented works that interrogate shifts in European ideas about sovereignty and international association during the late-nineteenth century. Both had fascinating and revealing reasons for selecting their projects and approaching them in the ways that they did.

In introducing himself to seminar participants, Fitzmaurice framed his pre-circulated paper as an attempt to demonstrate a new practice of intellectual history: that is, to interrogate the ways peoples’ lives—their most personal of experiences—influence their political thought. In the case of Travers Twiss, the legal theorist and practitioner who advanced King Leopold II’s imperial project in the Congo, Fitzmaurice illustrates how Twiss’s wife got him to think outside of the box in terms of creating new persons within the political, legal, and social context of Victorian Britain. And because of his experience transforming the socially-repugnant Pharailde van Lynseele into the socially-acceptable Lady Twiss, Fitzmaurice shows, it became possible for Travers Twiss to use his new understanding of legal-person-making to (successfully) challenge European notions of international association.

What I found most interesting about Fitzmaurice’s motivation to write about the Twiss’s is that it clearly speaks to his interest in constantly pushing the bounds of intellectual history (now more-popularly identified as the history of political thought). In his introduction during the seminar he mentioned being schooled in the Cambridge tradition, but that he deviated quite early on from the school’s focus on the state as the primary site of political thought. His interests resided in understanding how other kinds of bodies-politic, such as non-state corporations and companies, conceived of themselves, from where such ideas came, and what that meant for inter-polity relations at particular moments in time. Understanding this background, I could more clearly see how Fitzmaurice’s 2010 article on Twiss’s work for King Leopold II developed a story about the generation of political thought in a non-traditional state entity. This, then, had me thinking about one of his more recent works, in which he challenged historians of political thought to not be like a Laura Benton (who underpins the significance of understanding the generation of political thought from the bottom up, but in so doing downplays the role elites play in generating political and legal theory), but to also avoid the strictures of the top-down approaches that for so long animated intellectual history. In this piece, Fitzmaurice claimed that “we need work which shows the constant dialogue between people engaged in everyday business of various kinds, middling figures such as lawyers, but who also prove, on closer examination, to be people whose writings were embedded in everyday objectives.” Alas, the significance of Lady Twiss’s influence on Travers Twiss as a part of Fitzmaurice’s broader intellectual interest comes into focus: if political and legal thought is generated in the dialogue between everyday business and the top-down workings of bodies-politic, then the Twiss case makes for an incredibly productive vista from which to see the process in action.

When it came to describing his interest in studying the development of European legal thought in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century, particularly in relation to empire and international association, Steven Press mentioned that he initially came to his subject with an interest in studying the relationship between sovereignty and territoriality. I was most interested, however, in learning that Press’s inspiration for tackling the legal and geopolitical aspects of the Scramble for Africa came out of the confluence of studying German imperialism in his academic life and hearing so much about the United States’ relationship with Cuba and Guantanamo Bay in popular discourse. The contemporary debates over American governance inside the territorial bounds of another sovereign entity in exchange for money (through checks that Cuba has never cashed), he explained, motivated him to study the specificities of European and African transactions which facilitated the making of colonial Africa. This, then, led him to also investigate the generation of political and legal thought that legitimized the resurgence of non-state territorial sovereignty in the late nineteenth century. As a historian myself, I am always interested in how outside events inspire historians to ask particular questions about the past. In a way, Press’s admission of his intellectual influences demonstrates Fitzmaurice’s reminder that the ideas that guide one’s professional work do not singularly arise from within professional contexts.

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