Robert Westbrook

  • The preamble to the US Constitution boldly asserts a claim of popular sovereignty. The document declares itself the work of “We the People.” This claim, as many historians and others have pointed out, is a mystification: Insofar as ours is a democratic polity, it has become so in spite of the intentions of the Founding Fathers, who were, at best, the palest of democrats.

    Among the clearest indications of this mystification are the absence in the document of anything but the thinnest provisions for indirect popular rule and the Founders’ failure to provide any institutional space for the exercise

  • Dropping Science

    At its best, intellectual history is less the history of ideas than the history of thinking and of the social and cultural contexts in which thinking occurs—contexts that shape thinking and are, in turn, shaped by it. Joel Isaac’s Working Knowledge is intellectual history at its best.

    Isaac’s subject is the development of several of the human sciences (psychology, sociology, anthropology, history of science) at Harvard University between 1920 and 1960. But as Isaac makes clear, this is more than a story of disciplinary expansion; as the social sciences took root at America’s most prestigious

  • The Modern Distemper

    Writers who write because they must will write even when they are facing oblivion. Historian Tony Judt was such a writer.

    Judt wrote in the shadow of imminent death, even though, strictly speaking, at the end of his life he could not write. In the fall of 2008, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis—also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. This fatal, incurable malady rapidly and steadily deprives its sufferers of bodily functions, all the while leaving them free of pain and in full possession of their mental faculties. By the summer of 2009, Judt could no longer use his arms and legs,

  • Things Fall Apart

    In The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels offered one of history’s best-known characterizations of modernity. In the “bourgeois epoch,” they said, “all fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.”

    This formulation was an exaggeration—it appeared in a manifesto, after all. But unlike Marx and Engels’s hope for a communist future, their insights into modernity remain perspicacious.