Top Young Historians: 36 – Samuel Moyn

Top Young Historians

Samuel Moyn, 34

Basic Facts

Teaching Position: Associate Professor of History, Columbia University (2006-); Assistant Professor of History (2001-6)
Area of Research: modern intellectual history, French history, Jewish studies, religious studies, contemporary political theory, history of human rights, history of legal theory
Education: Ph.D., UC-Berkeley (2000), J.D., Harvard University (2001)
Major Publications: Moyn is the author of Origins of the Other: Emmanuel Levinas between Revelation and Samuel Moyn JPG Ethics (Cornell, 2005); A Holocaust Controversy: The Treblinka Affair in Postwar France (Brandeis, 2005); (as editor) Pierre Rosanvallon, Democracy Past and Future (Columbia, 2006); numerous articles.
Moyn in finishing a book about postwar French political theory tentatively entitled A New Theory of Politics: Claude Lefort and Company in Contemporary France (Columbia) and starting a new project on human rights in the recent and contemporary period.
Awards: Moyn is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including:
Morris D. Forkosch Prize, “Journal of the History of Ideas,” for best first book of the year in intellectual history, and Koret Foundation Jewish Studies Publication Prize, both for first book.
National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Stipend;
Sterling-Currier Fund, Grant for Conference on French Liberalism;
Columbia University Junior Faculty Development Grant (twice);
Columbia University Institute for Scholars in Paris Fellowship;
Jacob K. Javits Fellowship, U.S. Department of Education;
Gilbert Chinard Prize, Institut Français;
Phi Beta Kappa Scholarship;
Berkeley Humanities Research Grant;
Doreen B. Townsend Center Associate Fellowship (declined);
Dorot and S.I. Newhouse Foundations Israel Fellowships;
Benjamin F. Goor Prize in Jewish Studies;
Center for German and European Studies Predissertation Fellowship;
Andrew W. Mellon Predissertation Fellowship;
Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship in the Humanistic Studies (declined).
Additional Info:
Moyn is on the editorial board of “Ethics and International Affairs.”
He was the editor of the “Harvard Human Rights Journal.”
Moyn was Lecturer at Harvard University and was awarded Certificates of Distinction in Teaching, (1999-2001).
He is a member of the American Historical Association, Association for Jewish Studies, North American Levinas Society, and Society for French Historical Studies.

Personal Anecdote

Intellectual historians read books. Of course, they learn to smile and nod when others speak longingly about the treasures of this or that archive. But by and large, I would rather browse in the library stacks or head to the bookstore. I praise those who have a fetish for their documents for their contributions to knowledge – ones that I find as breathtaking and reorienting as the next historian. But I have always told myself that there are enough texts in the library – and they are the really important ones – deserving to be read and reread, interpreted and reinterpreted; and I assumed that their analysis might suffice for a scholarly career. Almost totally, my work has relied upon of published sources that were easily available. I have only ever risked the armchair exoticism of interlibrary loan, never impelled by what Arlette Farge has called the “taste of the archive” for the source, heaped amidst irrelevancies in a remote location, whose discovery will change the interpretation of the past.

But in a history department, one confesses such a thing only amongst friends or with a hint of shame (or after tenure). And fortunately, I have sought and found recondite documents in various places once or twice after all. The first book I wrote, on the twentieth-century moral philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, included an image of the first page he published after World War II and the Holocaust; its reproduction from a blurry mimeograph, I suppose, was intended to give my reader the impression that there were sources that historians were needed to recover, ones that people outside the discipline might never bother to search after. A version of that premise, after all, explained why I paid most attention to forgotten snippets of writing or unknown features of context throughout my treatment. Still, in spite of what I thought I learned by retrieving such things from yellowing journals and moldering books, I wasn’t convinced of the necessity of going further, of rooting out some truly lost source.

When I came to write a second little book on Holocaust memory, what started out as a tiny concession to the expectations of the discipline expanded a great deal. After I resolved to approach the subject by examining how people live through controversies about the past, I fixed on the furor set off by the publication of Jean-Francois Steiner’s Treblinka in 1966. Having made it a principle of my method analyze every response I could find, not just the statements of intellectual notables, I found myself disinterring minor newspapers –Yiddish dailies, for instance – and even grubbing in the archives. I realized, in fact, that in this case those hidden sources mattered to me most of all. One essential part of my story became how, at this moment in time, those with most actual experiential authority to speak were marginal to public debate while those with least were central — simply because they happened to be famous for other reasons or were otherwise well-placed to communicate with the public. Most surprisingly, at Yad Vashem in Israel, I stumbled across a long and moving letter that a survivor of the camp in question had drafted when he read the book that purported to be an account of a place he had lived and suffered. He had never sent the letter to the book’s author, however, and so my accidental discovery of its existence in effect allowed me to reconnect with this since disappeared survivor and, finally, to let him be heard. That was the moment when I felt most kinship with other historians and understood why they live the professional lives they do.

It might seem that the experience would have converted me. But it didn’t. The distaste of the archive persists. Not that I rule out going back if the topics demands it. But in fact, I find that I no longer approach the most elite and textual kind of intellectual history with as fraught a conscience. I confess more unrepentantly that I would still rather read a work of philosophical difficulty or cultural commentary, for my own benefit or as historical evidence. Yet now I know that a historian can be driven, even against initial inclination, to be the kind of student of the past he did not intend at first. For me, this has been one of the most enlightening lessons of the practice of history, and one I hope I am forced to re-learn again and again.

Quotes

By Samuel Moyn

  • “[T]he ethical other, I suggest, is a secularized theological concept. The transcendent and humiliating God of a particular moment in European theology became the humiliating and higher other of recent Continental ethical thought. ‘The “new” often consists,’ Origins of the Other JPG Amos Funkenstein once observed, in an aphorism certainly applicable to [Emmanuel] Levinas and the origins of the other, ‘not in the invention of new categories or new figures of thought, but rather in a surprising employment of existing ones.’ The origins of the other occurred, to put the argument of this book in a formula, through the transplantation of theology into phenomenology….
    The revival of interest in religion and ethnicity in the last decades has, in a paradox not yet understood, occurred at the same time of increasing skepticism towards the meaningful integrity and aboriginal coherence of cultural identities of all kinds. This book sides decisively with the skeptical view in presenting the Jewish inheritance Levinas received as too eroded, fragmentary and contested to provide a coherent identity for the philosopher to adopt, and credits him with far more liberty of selection, motivation of interpretation, and creativity of mind in crafting the identity he is often understood to have straightforwardly inhabited. Put more bluntly, in Levinas’s case, as more generally, the rhetoric of finding has to be replaced with the rhetoric of making.” Samuel Moyn in “Origins of the Other”
  • About Samuel Moyn

  • “Make no mistake about it: Samuel Moyn has written a blockbuster book on one of the most pivotal, yet imperfectly understood and little scrutinized figures of twentieth- century European thought, Emmanuel Levinas. Combining erudition of rare depth and scope with uncommon stylistic elegance, Moyn narrates the formation of Levinas’s concept of “the other” as occasioned by the various philosophical, and crucially, theological encounters he made along the way to his mature philosophy of ethics and intersubjectivity. The result is a riveting, highly informative account not only of the intellectual itinerary of Emmanuel Levinas, but also of the principal currents of twentieth-century European thought.” — Nathan Bracher reviewing “Origins of the Other”
  • “Intellectual history at its best should heighten the philosophical drama in a thinker’s work, giving us a deeper appreciation of what is genuinely at stake in it. Samuel Moyn’s study of Levinas does just that. It not only helps us understand why Levinas became such a revered figure in postwar France but also reveals what that reverence obscured—in particular, Levinas’s deep debt to Jewish and, surprisingly, Christian theology. All of which raises important questions about the moral legacy of biblical religion, and how modern philosophy has and hasn’t confronted it.” — Mark Lilla, author of “The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics” reviewing “Origins of the Other”
  • In Origins of the Other, Samuel Moyn not only offers a novel and historically convincing portrait of Levinas that upsets received interpretations but also bridges areas of inquiry that seldom meet. In so doing he gives intellectual historians as well as philosophers a model for considering the complex interplay between historical and philosophical understanding. This is an original and superb book. It will be sure to provoke much debate about Levinas and about a fundamental issue that continues to plague much of contemporary Continental and Anglo-American political and ethical theory: whether it is possible to develop a secular humanism without recourse to theological categories.” — Leora Batnitzky, Princeton University reviewing “Origins of the Other”
  • “Emmanuel Levinas is arguably the most important ethical theorist in all of recent continental philosophy. Yet his historical origins have been poorly understood— until now. Samuel Moyn provides not only a fascinating inquiry into the sources of Levinasian ethics but also a bold and capacious look at the broader, European discourse of ‘the other’ that first emerged from the ferment of interwar philosophical ‘crisis’ among such thinkers as Franz Rosenzweig and Karl Barth. The result is a work of scholarship sober in tone yet scintillating with insight. Moyn has written nothing less than a portrait of European intellectual life in the twentieth century.” — Peter E. Gordon, Harvard University, author of “Rosenzweig and Heidegger: Between Judaism and German Philosophy” reviewing “Origins of the Other”
  • “Refreshingly lucid… One of the virtues of Moyn’s book is that he discovers the origins of Levinas’s notion of Otherness where few before him have thought to look.” — Richard Wolin reviewing “Origins of the Other”
  • “There is no denying Moyn’s philological analysis. … Moyn also provides an exceptionally accessible introduction to the often dense and obscure problems of phenomenology, and to how Levinas and others went about trying to solve them.” — Jay Michaelson reviewing “Origins of the Other”
  • “. . . arresting scholarship . . . Moyn elucidates with compelling clarity and coherence. Alive to historical ironies and penetratingly written, this small, thoughtful book focusing on one moment in French history illuminates very large themes, representing intellectual history at its very best.” — Benny Kraut reviewing “A Holocaust Controversy”
  • “Did Jews go like lambs to the Nazi slaughter? Not those who revolted in the Treblinka death camp in August 1943. In this absorbing and elegant work Samuel Moyn shows how an incendiary book about Treblinka in 1966 transformed Holocaust awareness.” — Robert O. Paxton, author of “Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order” r eviewing “A Holocaust Controversy”
  • “Moyn provides a fascinating micrological study of the heated controversy surrounding J.F. Steiner’s 1966 book Treblinka, a controversy reminiscent of the recent Goldhagen affair. Focusing on he contested distinction between concentration and death camps as well as on the question of Jewish “complicity” in the process of extermination, Moyn’s study becomes the port of entry for an illuminating exploration of still-live issues surrounding the uses and abuses of the Holocaust.” — Dominick LaCapra, author of “History and Memory after Auschwitz” reviewing “A Holocaust Controversy”
  • “I loved both this class and this professor. In my four years at Columbia, I have taken a number of interesting courses, but few have made me think as hard as this one, both inside the class and out. Professor Moyn takes the near-sacred idea of human rights and forces you to consider them as more than just ideals that we all do or should strive to make a reality. Prof. Moyn himself is an entertaining lecturer, without being a showman. He has a dry sense of humor that makes even the dullest material seem interesting. In addition, he manages to impart tons of information without ever losing focus of his main points.”…
    “Samuel Moyn is an amazing professor, a great guy who is extremely friendly and very knowledgeable and willing to work with his students.”…
    “You would be hard pressed to find a better prepared or more engaging teacher at Columbia…Prof Moyn is an excellent teacher–available to students, smart, fair, funny, organized.”…”Moyn is a great lecturer, he’s entertaining and exceptionally brilliant.” — Anonymous Students
  • Posted on Sunday, December 3, 2006 at 7:34 PM

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    1. Samuel Moyn: The Last Utopia traces the history of human rights policy « History Musings…

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