“Conceptual engineering” is the term philosophers use to categorize a sub-discipline concerned with refining and improving concepts like “knowledge,” “race,” or “health.” As a literary historian, I’m interested in the ways literature and literary studies can contribute to the aims of conceptual engineering, because I think many of our most important concepts are not only ill-equipped to describe the social, historical, and scientific realities that underlie them but also incapable of indexing a better reality.
At Colby College, where I teach, our Center for the Arts and Humanities sponsors a program that brings together teaching and scholarship across the disciplines at the college under the umbrella of an annual theme, and our 2016-17 theme was “revolutions.” For this reason, I designed an “Age of Revolution” course with prominent literature and history components, covering material from the English Civil Wars to the Haitian Revolution. My initial goal for this course was to take it as an occasion for collaborative conceptual engineering, to illuminate and refine the concept of “revolution.” I learned that this is easier said than done.
Since I wanted to approach revolution as a concept, and to make legible for students the prospects for conceptual engineering, I included course material on both political revolutions—like the US War of Independence and the French Revolution—and conceptual ones, like the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment. I asked students to suspend judgment as best they could on the matter of what constitutes a revolution, not only what material conditions could be said to produce a political revolution, but also what scientific and technological developments, what changes in media and remediation, and what shifts in a given history of ideas could be called “revolutionary.”
My plan was to offer assignments that would lead students to develop their own theory of revolution as a concept: What does it entail? What does it look like? What has it meant historically? What could it mean in the future? But I realized soon enough that my students wanted to form these conclusions from the very beginning of the course. To their credit, this was because they were genuinely interested in what constitutes revolution, and made connections to the thinking about revolutions they had already done in other classes. In other words, my approach wasn’t terribly original. So I pulled back from this initial assignment plan, and instead, re-envisioned the class as an opportunity to push the concept of revolution to the background, or to suspend efforts at conceptual engineering, until we had seen a larger sample of revolutions in various forms.
Form—or genre—then became the principal organizational logic of the course, as well as the principal challenge. The challenge of form arose both from trying to understand conceptual differences between a political revolution that happens “on the ground” and immediately alters lives and governance structures and a revolution of ideas, and from comparing the radically different forms and stakes of political revolutions themselves.
My students, for example, have some familiarity with the stakes of the US and French revolutions, but little exposure to the terms and outcomes of the Haitian Revolution, from slave revolt to self-governance. We’re used to thinking of the “liberal” revolutions of the eighteenth-century Atlantic world in terms of ideas: individual liberty, representation in the legislature, critiques of monarchy, and the freedom to pursue property. Less often do students come to the study of revolutions with experience thinking about principles of freedom outside of Jeffersonian, Rousseauian, or “liberal” frameworks. As we examined this problem in the course, it became clear that we possessed a vocabulary for talking about the US and French revolutions but struggled to avoid folding the Haitian Revolution into US and French conceptual frameworks. At the same time, we understood that such “folding” was awkward and ultimately impossible. We had similar difficulty talking about the English Civil Wars in relation to the US and French revolutions, given that the former deposed a king (revolutionary!), but reinstated one shortly after (to say nothing of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which would seem even less revolutionary). We needed to find a way to strategically mute the tendency to conceive of all revolution within a liberal framework.
One could understand the differences between these various political revolutions—as well as between these and conceptual revolutions like the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment—in any number of ways: as regional differences, economic differences, differences in political philosophy, and differences in the kinds of material conditions that gave rise to revolution in each case. But I’ve turned to “genre” differences because, like literary genres, forms of revolution never follow all the rules meant to distinguish them in the first place. Just like verse essays, prose epics, and mock-heroic novels, the various genres of revolution can be identified and compared as blends of different features, but their differences must also be disentangled and disambiguated if we’re to study them responsibly.
The most successful way of studying genres of revolution in comparative ways, then, turned out to be by turning to their sub-genres: constitutions, declarations of independence, manifestos, and other documents of revolution. I’m sure I’m not the only person who gives students the US and Haitian declarations of independence to read side-by-side, but we found this exercise illuminating. Students were able to trace common rhetorical strategies—an appeal to “citizens”; an exposition of grievances—but also to identify tonal differences that reflect the different stakes for US mandarins versus enslaved Haitians. The Haitian document—in translation—stunned my students with passages that articulate not just the desire for, but the political expediency of vengeance:
…let us begin with the French. Let them tremble when they approach our coast, if not from the memory of those cruelties they perpetrated here, then from the terrible resolution that we will have made to put to death anyone born French whose profane foot soils the land of liberty.
Only after such comparative exercises was it possible to begin the difficult work of conceptual engineering, or to rethink revolution from the starting point that revolution is not just a concept that contains multitudes, but a multi-generic concept—a concept whose multitudes can be put into form and analyzed based on the structures they assume. When I designed the course I didn’t intend this approach, which I think is categorically different from thinking about revolutions in regional, national, or even historical terms, all of which foreground the context of revolution as an organizing principle. But as we compared documents and literatures of revolution—Satan’s speech in Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) with the US Declaration of Independence with Toussaint L’Ouverture’s 1801 writings, for example—we encountered a history of revolution in forms, of voices, of proclamations, of concerns, of fears, and of legacies.
Aaron R. Hanlon is an assistant professor of English at Colby College. His first book, A World of Disorderly Notions: Quixote and the Logic of Exceptionalism, is forthcoming in May 2019 from the University of Virginia Press. His public writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and others.