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Danielle Charette

Articles by Danielle Charette

Ryan Patrick Hanley on Fénelon

May 28, 2020

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In a recording for the Talking Intellectual History series at the University of St Andrews, Ryan Patrick Hanley and I discussed his new work on François de Salignac de la Mothe-Fénelon. Hanley is a professor of political science at Boston College and author of the monograph The Political Philosophy of Fénelon (Oxford University Press 2020), just published alongside Hanley’s selected translations: Fénelon: Moral and Political Writings.

Most anglophone historians of political thought have forgotten Fénelon’s significance. It may come as a surprise that Fenelon’s Adventures of Telemachus (1699) was the most-read book in eighteenth-century France after the Bible. As Hanley notes, Telemachus counted Montesquieu, Rousseau,

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The Bookish Multitude: A review of D.W. Young’s “Booksellers”

May 22, 2020

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The release of Booksellers, now available for virtual screening, coincides with a nostalgia many of us feel for those days when we could freely browse the stacks. D. W. Young’s new documentary begins in earnest: “If books disappear, history will disappear, and human beings will also disappear.” But Booksellers is about a very specific sort of human being. Its subjects are not general readers, or even the people dedicated to their local indie store, but antiquarian dealers and their customers.

This subgroup makes for an eccentric cast of characters. First, we meet the dealer Dave Bergman. When Bergman’s not selling natural history books on the Upper West Side, he plays on seven separate

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On Virtue Politics and Law School Dropouts

April 29, 2020

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Last week I had the opportunity to interview the intellectual historian and Renaissance scholar James Hankins about his new book Virtue Politics: Soulcraft and Statecraft in Renaissance Italy (Harvard University Press, 2019). The recording is available here, as part of the Talking Intellectual History audio library at the University of St Andrews Institute for Intellectual History.

Readers of Tocqueville might be interested in one sub-thread that runs throughout Virtue Politics: the status of legal culture.

Hankins defines “virtue politics” as a Renaissance version of meritocracy. Humanists of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries tolerated social hierarchies, so long as they believed these hierarchies

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Book Forum: Parliamentary Thinking

February 6, 2020

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This is the launch of a joint book forum on “Parliamentary Thinking.”

William Selinger, Parliamentarism: From Burke to Weber (Cambridge University Press, 2019)

Gregory Conti, Parliament the Mirror of the Nation: Representation, Deliberation, and Democracy in Victorian Britain (Cambridge University Press, 2019)

Introduction: Parliamentary Thinking

In his Lettres sur les Anglais, Voltaire refused to liken the English parliament to the Roman senate. Parliament as he portrayed it was a modern development. Voltaire predicted that the English Commons would “never rise to so exalted a pitch of glory” as Rome, but nor would “its end be so fatal.” Parliament’s stability deserved our grudging admiration.

Yet beyond the

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Political Theory and American Literature

January 24, 2020

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The journal Political Theory has been experimenting with retrospective online “Guides” on key articles and themes over the course of the journal’s history. I worked with the editors on a “Guide” highlighting the relationship between political theory and American literature. Political theorists such as Judith Shklar, Michael Rogin, George Kateb, Jack Turner, and Lawrie Balfour invoke literary examples—especially US authors—with some regularity, and I investigate some of the productive overlaps between politics and literature. Since the piece begins with Tocqueville and America’s perennial tension between the “ideal” and the “real,” I figured I’d share a link here.

Photo credit: Grand Teton National Park,

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Judith Shklar’s Teaching Statement

October 12, 2019

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Judith Shklar has a provocative little essay called “Why Teach Political Theory?” Crafting the response she might give to “some imaginary dean,” Shklar emphasizes that a liberal education is about familiarizing the young with their literary heritage, and it’s hard to deny that the classics of political theory are at the center of that heritage. Sending the autodidact into the library isn’t enough. We need the personal exchange of the classroom to prevent ourselves from becoming “the prisoner[s] of a single vocabulary”—particularly since “our accumulated political notions constitute a veritable Tower of Babel.”

Shklar’s essay first appeared in 1988 in a small collected volume, but I recently discovered the piece

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Tocqueville’s Democratic Historians

August 18, 2019

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We’ve decided to experiment with a new feature on the blog called “close-reading Tocqueville.” The premise is simple: we’ll periodically select one chapter from Tocqueville’s corpus and comment on what we find.

To begin, I chose Tocqueville’s chapter, “On Certain Tendencies Peculiar to Historians in Democratic Centuries” (Democracy in America, II.1.20). The chapter follows a series of reflections on genre, in which Tocqueville asks how writers go about composing works of science, poetry, and drama in the democratic era. When it comes time to consider the genre of history, Tocqueville draws a customary contrast between the aristocratic and democratic style.

In many ways, aristocratic historians had it easier.

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Staging Saul Bellow’s Democracy

June 30, 2019

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In a 1972 speech at the Chicago Public Library, the novelist Saul Bellow described the Westside branch where he borrowed books as a boy. The regulars at the Humbolt Park library, he remembered, comprised “a considerable variety of self-taught and often cranky theoreticians…[P]eculiar autodidacts and philosophers in ragged trousers brooded or raged.” These are the Chicagoans who populate Bellow’s fiction: the immigrants who read Plato at one moment and enter fist-fights in the next. In lieu of tight plot structures, Bellow’s novels build narrative tension around the question of what his characters will do with their hard-won learning: Will they ascend America’s ladder of success, or sink into gangsterism?


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Book Forum: Sophia Rosenfeld’s Democracy and Truth

June 1, 2019

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This is the launch of our book forum for Sophia Rosenfeld’s Democracy and Truth: A Short History (University of Pennsylvania Press 2019). 

Populist and “post-truth” politics have a long pedigree. Pamphlets published on London’s Grub Street or in Andrew Jackson’s America prove that the art of daily outrage predates social media. In fact, worries about sensationalism and the status of truth may be inherent to modern democracy. This book forum is dedicated to Sophia Rosenfeld’s Democracy and Truth: A Short History, which traces our present angst back to the eighteenth century. Rosenfeld explains how the notion that ordinary people possessed their own epistemic authority—un sens commun—motivated claims

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On Judith Shklar, snobbery, and the SAT

May 22, 2019

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The SAT was back in the news last week, thanks to the College Board’s introduction of something called an “adversity score.” Admissions officers will now see a number, between 1 and 100, quantifying various socioeconomic factors associated with an applicant’s hometown and upbringing. Although the number will not affect students’ official SAT scores, the “environmental context dashboard” that accompanies their scores is designed to give universities more data about students’ relative disadvantages—or, at least, the disadvantages that correlate with economics.

I’m agnostic as to whether this new metric represents progress in the world of standardized testing. I’d assumed that admissions officers were already

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Computer programmers and Quentin Compson: American Stoics?

April 9, 2019

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The New York Times recently ran an entertaining—if somewhat unnerving—piece on Silicon Valley’s fascination with Stoicism. A number of prominent tech entrepreneurs claim to follow the philosophy of self-mastery taught by Cicero, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius—or at least the version of Roman thought popularized by writers like William Irvine and Ryan Holiday. The Daily Stoic blog markets momento mori exercises, and the international Stoicon conference now boasts Stoicon-x events. These have apparently led to an uptick in cold showers, periodic fasting, and voluntary treks through the rain.

Such latter-day Stoicism may be no more than a fad. It surely tells us more about the way cultishness

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Pressman on When the American Press Became Modern

March 10, 2019

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Review of Matthew Pressman, On Press: The Liberal Values That Shaped the News (Harvard University Press, 2018)

Readers imagining the history of the American news media might think of William Randolph Hearst and “yellow” journalism, the progressive muckrakers, or the soothing voice of Walter Cronkite. Frequenters of this site may even be tempted to start with Alexis de Tocqueville’s observation that the newspaper functions as a “weapon” for freedom.

However, Matthew Pressman makes a persuasive case for studying newsrooms between 1960 and 1980 if we want to understand how contemporary journalism emerged. On Press: The Liberal Values That Shaped the News provides a well-researched picture of The York

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The Administrative Hunch: Is Cass Sunstein a Tocquevillian?

February 13, 2019

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Stephen Sawyer’s post in January on the democratic paradoxes of the administrative state got me thinking, somewhat tangentially, about the Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein.
Like many non-lawyers, I first came across Sunstein during the Nudge craze of the late 2000s, which he has kept up with more recent books like, The Ethics of Influence: Government in the Age of Behavioral Science (2016) and Trusting Nudges: Toward A Bill of Rights for Nudging (with Lucia A. Reisch, 2019). By now, Sunstein’s thesis is familiar: politicians should take more cues from behavioral economics. If social science proves that people err in predictable ways, we could all use a “nudge”—bolstered by the latest

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A Tocquevillian Take on Moyn and Law Schools

January 2, 2019

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Last month, Samuel Moyn declared in The Chronicle of Higher Education that law schools might be bad for democracy. He seems to have struck a nerve. Moyn, a prominent human rights theorist and Professor of Law and History at Yale, contends that American law schools are carrying out an increasingly schizophrenic mission (check out the Tocqueville21 roundtable on Moyn’s latest book here). The obvious answer to Moyn’s question concerning what law schools are for is that they exist to produce successful lawyers. But this response makes those at the upper echelon of the American legal academy uneasy. It exposes their mission as, at once, too elitist and too mercenary. Moyn observes that students want to “believe

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Reading Kamel Daoud in America

December 18, 2018

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Review of Kamel Daoud, Chroniques: Selected Columns, 2010-2016 (Other Press, 2018)Translated by Elisabeth Zerofsky
I’m a latecomer to the Affaire Daoud. I overlooked the fawning coverage that Kamel Daoud’s novel, The Meursault Investigation, received from the international press in 2015. And I also missed the international indignation at a column he wrote for Le Monde the following January. That piece, “Cologne, lieu de fantasmes,” presented the New Year’s Eve assault of some 600 women in Germany as an unassailable clash in values. Daoud argued that the attackers—most of whom were of North African or Middle Eastern descent and were rumored to be recent refugees—had confirmed the “sexual misery” and “pornographic

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Stunning Sympathy

November 1, 2018

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The evolution of photography seems to correspond with our modern capacity for sympathy. Someone in a Facetime conversation feels more present than a news clip from a month ago, while that clip feels livelier than just a picture, and so on and so forth. The Technicolored half of the Wizard of Oz is supposed to touch our imagination more than the first, and the subjects of black-and-white film still seem more accessible than the men and women of old daguerreotypes. As a kid, I half assumed anyone photographed before the twentieth century must have been perpetually dour and stern, in that sad era before people discovered the smile.

In the startlingly beautiful World War I documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old, director Peter Jackson

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Mister Rogers’ Television

August 30, 2018

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Until watching Morgan Neville’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, it had been a long while since I’d given Mister Rogers much thought. If he came up at all in the past two decades, it was probably as a gag: an off-hand remark about button-up cardigans or a jibe about sock puppets. Fred Rogers is one of those democratizing figures in American life who is universally recognizable and universally safe for joking (or last-minute Halloween costumes). In this, Rogers may even out-rival Richard Simmons, Dan Quayle, or the Kardashians. Except Rogers, rather embarrassingly, exercises a deeper moral claim on us. Neville’s Won’t you be My Neighbor has the melancholic effect of reminding us of that moral claim. The 1970s provided

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Culture and War: Edith Wharton’s 1918

April 3, 2018

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Edith Wharton at her estate in Massachusetts with Henry James and Howard Sturgis
This past February, the Times Literary Supplement published a translation of Edith Wharton’s lecture, “France and Its Allies at War: The Witnesses Speak.” It’s a curious little speech, delivered in French during a wartime series in February 1918, that tries to articulate the culture clash between the US and France. Wharton is best known as a novelist of the American Gilded Age, and wasn’t exactly a political theorist. But living among the upper-crust of New York and Boston’s best families often entailed the prestige of attempting to live among the French. It was not for nothing that Wharton kept her father’s marked-up copy of Alexis

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L’Education des jeunes filles aux Etats-Unis

March 4, 2018

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Film review: Lady Bird, written and directed by Greta Gerwig; The Florida Project, written by Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch, directed by Sean Baker
Tocqueville’s observations on raising girls in the United States come with a cruel volte-face. At first, he writes admirably of the young women who tend to be freer, stronger, more confident, and less chaste than their European peers (DA II.3.9). And yet this praise abruptly gives way to the ominously titled chapter, “How the Traits of the Girl Can be Divined in the Wife.” Here he describes the complete forfeiture of feminine independence: “A girl turns her father’s house into a place of freedom and pleasure, whereas a wife lives in her husband’s home as in a

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The Allure of the City

February 2, 2018

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Danielle Charette is a PhD Student with the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, where she studies political theory. She graduated from Swarthmore College with a BA in English Literature. 

Review of Aurélien Bellanger, Le Grand Paris (Gallimard, 2017).

Aurélien Bellanger’s Le Grand Paris fictionalizes the experience of being seduced by politics. Part novel, part manifesto, Bellanger’s fourth book follows the young Alexandre Belgrand through what might best be described as a bureaucratic trance.

Le Grand Paris is the rare novel written for political theorists, and the book abounds in theologico-political tropes: the Hobbesian state of nature, the tower of Babel, the forest of signs, Baudelaire’s demons,

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