James Simpson


On his book Permanent Revolution: The Reformation and the Illiberal Roots of Liberalism

Cover Interview of October 16, 2019


As a cultural historian, I work to the ideal that cultural history is ancillary to the complex history of freedoms. I also aim to write what I call “cultural etymology,” by which I designate a practice of excavating the present. The present is, if we are to be honest with ourselves, the place where most historical enquiry most urgently and frequently starts. I myself always start with the conditions of contemporary modernity, where “conditions” also designates pathology. Many cultural historians would describe their work as an act of discovery. My project is rather one of recovery, where one starts from the present and recovers immanent histories by which the present is understood, as if for the first time.

As a cultural historian, I write as, and for, both scholar and citizen.

To the scholar, my appeal is to write cultural history with long chronologies, as we try to evade the historiographical deformities imposed upon us by the standard periodic divisions of cultural history. To write either as “medievalist” or as “early modernist” is already to buy into many prejudicial presuppositions. The standard divisions of cultural history are designed so as neutralize most powerfully the interest of our fractured histories.

As a citizen, I appeal not to the evangelical, since in my experience that reader judges only from their convictions. If any evangelical is prepared to engage with me, I will be delighted, but that has not been my experience with previous books. As a citizen, I appeal instead to the liberal. I ask her or him to understand the liberal tradition more deeply, as a precious but fragile product of history. As Liberalism is in retreat worldwide, liberals need to understand their opponents, and their intimate relation with their opponents. They need to understand that they, as liberals, can be just as intolerant as their evangelical opponents, and they need to understand Liberalism less as a belief system and more as an instrument for managing potentially violent belief systems.