The ages we live by: Historical periodization in social and political thought /

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Bibliographic Details
Author / Creator:Johnson, Sarah Elizabeth, author.
Ann Arbor : ProQuest Dissertations & Theses, 2015
Description:1 electronic resource (195 pages)
Format: E-Resource Dissertations
Local Note:School code: 0330
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Other authors / contributors:University of Chicago. degree granting institution.
Notes:Advisors: Jennifer Pitts Committee members: Robert Gooding-Williams; Patchen Markell.
Dissertation Abstracts International, Volume: 77-05(E), Section: A.
Summary:The medieval/modern divide offers a powerful means of orienting social and political theorists in time. But what role does the act of periodizing history play in these theorists' characteristic activities, such as critically examining social and political life and pursuing its "imaginative reordering"? Moreover, if we allowed ourselves to desacralize the particular ages we live by and to treat them as concepts like any others, would we be able to say they are "good to think with," or in other words, that they equip us to see and to examine what is most significant, peculiar, and deserving of critique in our own present, as well as to imagine meaningfully different futures? And if we posed the questions that Nietzsche taught us---What is the value of our practices of historical periodization? What do they serve and what modes of living and thinking do they promote?---what would we find?
In this dissertation I take up these questions as I examine the ways in which social and political theorists have periodized history since the seventeenth century, when the ancient-medieval-modern scheme began to capture the historical imagination of European intellectuals. Through readings of Giambattista Vico, Karl Marx, and Michel Foucault I develop two related arguments. First, I argue that the practice of periodizing history is a foundational act of social and political thought. This is because it delimits and defines the particular "now" that is the theorist's source of inspiration, or her ultimate object of analysis, critique, and transformation. Our periodizations, then, are far from being an accessory to political thinking. As the founding claims of our social and political thought, our periodizations establish the spaces in which that thought develops. They determine what we become attuned to in our world and they shape the meaning we find in it. The stakes of our periodizations are therefore high. This is why the ground of historical periodization has been an important yet overlooked site of debate in the history of political thought. Second, I demonstrate that the concept of a medieval/modern break offers few, if any, resources for imagining meaningfully different futures. As the ties between the "modern age" concept and the history of colonialism betray, this break was and remains a tool for safeguarding the present. This largely uncontested means of orienting social and political theorists in time thus fails to provide a salutary foundation for many political projects today.