Peter de Bolla, The Architecture of Concepts: The Historical Formation of Human Rights

Peter de Bolla, The Architecture of Concepts: The Historical Formation of Human Rights (New York: Fordham University Press 2013) x+298 pp. $40.00 Pb, $130.00 Hb. ISBN: 978-0-8232-5439-2

Peter de Bolla’s ambitious The Architecture of Concepts essentially offers three books in one. As its subtitle suggests, it aims to contribute to an understanding of the historical origins of one specific, politically highly relevant concept: human rights. Over the book’s three central chapters, de Bolla develops a highly detailed and referenced argument, investigating the development of the conceptual structure of human rights at three pivotal points in history: in the pre-revolutionary American colonies, during the first Continental Congress, and in the influential debate between Burke and Paine following the French Revolution. De Bolla’s central point in sketching this history is that throughout these debates, the concept of human rights was evoked and understood in fundamentally different ways. A dominant understanding of human rights treats them as definable, countable and applicable in individual cases, 'a bundle of specifiable items' (119), while an alternative, emergent way of thinking the concept understands them as general, imprescriptible, and held by 'man as the singular universal' (252). De Bolla teases out these different meanings in highly sensitive readings of historical documents, with a dual aim in mind. On the one hand, he seeks to correct a historical account which claims that a concept of universal human rights had a wide currency in the eighteenth century. In fact, so de Bolla’s research suggests, at that time such a conceptual structure was latent at best. On the other hand, de Bolla’s historical analyses expose contradictions in the concept of human rights we have inherited and he argues that 'we are trapped within a conceptual architecture that will not do the work we demand of it' (275). Instead, he proposes to realise the potential inherent in the alternative, latent structure of the concept as he has parsed it in his historical analyses. This, he suggests, would mean that 'rather than being defined as those we hold by dint of being human, [human rights] may come to be understood in a different tense and with a different conceptual architecture, as our collective aspiration on behalf of humanity' (288).

De Bolla is scarcely less ambitious in his hope to establish both a new theoretical framework and an innovative methodology. It is these two projects that render this book of interest to a wider readership, with little investment in the complex history of human rights, or the intellectual environment of the eighteenth century. For such readers, among whom I must count myself, The Architecture of Concepts provides a challengingly complex taxonomy of different types of conceptual entities. Following Christopher Peacocke’s understanding of concepts as 'ways of thinking something' (16), de Bolla’s exploration of conceptual forms is based on two central premises: first, that there is an important difference between concept, word and meaning, and second, that concepts are cultural entities, 'that culture thinks, or that the sense of arriving at understanding is not the exclusive preserve of an individual mind' (5). Only such an understanding of concepts justifies the kind of linguistically aware historical study of conceptual change de Bolla presents. De Bolla is little interested in arguing the niceties of these points, however, and rather focuses on developing an entirely new terminology to differentiate between different types of concepts. He shows himself very aware of the potential difficulties and bewilderment of readers in face of his distinction between conceptual kinds, functions, structures, modalities and phases, for all of which he assigns three possible variants (e.g. the three conceptual modalities he defines are isogetic, schematic and axiomatic). The complexity of this schema is further heightened by apparently allowing in principle for all possible combinations of these terms. De Bolla, however, shows little interest in exploring the taxonomic implications of his schema in detail. He develops it with breathtaking brevity, within less than six pages and with the help of few illustrating examples. This may or may not account for the fact that this reader, at least, experienced some difficulty in familiarising herself with its usage. Things don’t get easier by the introduction of three architectural metaphors in one of the subsequent chapters. Talking already specifically about human rights, de Bolla explains differences in the concept’s architecture by analogy to the hinge, the deposit and the platform. These architectural elements interact with the previously proposed schema, but they do not necessarily map onto it straightforwardly, or at least such a mapping is never explicitly developed. It thus remains somewhat unclear whether the architectural metaphors are more generally applicable or whether they were developed specifically to address the case of the concept of '(human) rights.' All of this theoretical discussion is challenging, intriguing and tantalising and de Bolla’s scanty discussion calls for others to develop these theoretical propositions further. He certainly provides a more nuanced vocabulary for different kinds of concepts than was hitherto available.

Last but not least, The Architecture of Concepts is also interesting for its innovative methodology, using searches in vast full-text digital archives to support its claims. De Bolla’s aim is to be able to say something about the conceptual architectures available within the culture at large, instead of focusing on the way specific (often canonical) individuals used and perhaps reformed them. In order to do so, he uses the Eighteenth Century Collection Online (ECCO) to search for various combinations of words with the term 'rights'. The results de Bolla presents are interesting, not only for the information he sensitively teases out from the raw numbers he provides, but also for illustrating the potential and the limits of such research. Throughout, de Bolla shows himself very aware of the challenges of this type of research data and the noise in the data itself. The search results he present often can do little more than offer hints and suggestions. Even these are to some extent undermined by de Bolla’s highly discerning close readings of individual texts which tease out conceptual meanings that belie any reliance on superficial verbal evidence. In order to construct a convincing argument therefore, we find de Bolla always turn back to the individual text. Conscious of their limitations, de Bolla offers his explorations of new methodology as a basis for future refinement.

Even if the detailed discussion of historical rights discourse examined in the bulk of The Architecture of Concepts speaks mainly to a highly specialised audience, its theoretical and methodological principles are of more general interest, in particular because they seem to call so insistently for further elaboration and exploration. In its explicitly stated aim to inspire and provoke future research, de Bolla’s project, just like the concept of human rights he advocates, is certainly 'aspirational in effect all the way down' (252).

Irmtraud Huber, Universität Bern