Borrowed Light: Vico, Hegel, and the Colonies

Borrowed Light: Vico, Hegel, and the Colonies

Borrowed Light: Vico, Hegel, and the Colonies

Borrowed Light: Vico, Hegel, and the Colonies


A critical revaluation of the humanist tradition, Borrowed Light makes the case that the 20th century is the "anticolonial century." The sparks of concerted resistance to colonial oppression were ignited in the gathering of intellectual malcontents from all over the world in interwar Europe. Many of this era's principal figures were formed by the experience of revolution on Europe's semi-developed Eastern periphery, making their ideas especially pertinent to current ideas about autonomy and sovereignty. Moreover, the debates most prominent then-human vs. inhuman, religions of the book vs. oral cultures, the authoritarian state vs. the representative state and, above all, scientific rationality vs. humanist reason-remain central today.

Timothy Brennan returns to the scientific Enlightenment of the 17th century and its legacies. In readings of the showdown between Spinoza and Vico, Hegel's critique of liberalism, and Nietzsche's antipathy towards the colonies and social democracy, Brennan identifies the divergent lines of the first anticolonial theory-a literary and philosophical project with strong ties to what we now call Marxism. Along the way, he assesses prospects for a renewal of the study of imperial culture.


[Not] intuitions, pulled out of one’s head, supported by statistical laws
… but “active and aware participation,” “compassion,” the experience of
immediate particulars, and a system that might be called “living philology.”
Antonio Gramsci

The interwar moment

This is a book about historical continuities rather than sudden eruptions or revolutionary breaks. Although it may seem disconnected at first, my interest is to trace the direct and indirect influences of Giambattista Vico and (as an heir to Vico) G. W. F. Hegel on the historically new anticolonial spirit that arose in the early decades of the twentieth century. Within the intellectual lineage they created, this movement from the eighteenth to the twentieth century saw the development of ideas that, quite unlike the present, expressed their apostasy as humanism rather than anti-humanism, and saw the ability of the humanities to check the claims of the natural sciences as being not just an intellectual matter but a vital political goal. in a second volume, I look at the political and aesthetic forms that this influence took in the interwar era itself (see the Appendix for the contents of that study).

There are a number of rifts in the humanities today, and no lack of books and essays debating incompatible positions, with great energy and emotion, on the nature of the human, the politics of literature, the prospects for historical change, and the character of language. Even at the level of theme, it is striking what one group of critics finds compelling and another banal. the choices of topics—inspiring many, leaving others cold—are made for the most part without any attention to the past of thought. We have a great deal of “theory,” in other words, but very little intellectual history. One of my purposes in writing this book was to speculate on whether understanding is fruitfully disrupted . . .

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