U.S. Intellectual History Blog

What is Reception History? And Other Questions for Glory Liu and Claire Rydell Arcenas

Editor's Note

Glory Liu is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Political Theory Project at Brown University, working on a book about Adam Smith in American thought. She received her PhD in Political Science from Stanford University. Claire Rydell Arcenas is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Montana, writing her book called Locke in America, under contract with the University of Chicago Press. She received her PhD in history from Stanford University.


GLORY: Reception history is a type of intellectual history that investigates how ideas come to life. Rather than focusing purely on interpreting a text (or idea) in context, reception history investigates how and why people read, digest, and propagate an idea or set of ideas.  It explores how and why certain ideas become powerful while others don’t.

CLAIRE: Glory’s point about making ideas come alive is really powerful. At its core, reception history grapples with big questions about how and why people in the past have found certain ideas or concepts important, interesting, dangerous, or even irrelevant. When we write about “reception,” we’re interrogating the messiness of past peoples’ responses to and interactions with texts, thinkers, and ideas rather than paying attention only to the existence of thoughts themselves.

GLORY: As a political theorist, I was trained to adopt a contextualist approach to reading Adam Smith’s works on their own terms, but I was also constantly vexed by the following: if Smith really was (and is) an Enlightenment moral philosopher, how, when, and why did his reputation as a “liberal capitalist” emerge in the first place? And how did it become so powerful?  When I first started asking these questions as a doctoral student, I didn’t really know I was doing reception history.  But the deeper I went, the clearer it became that part of doing reception history is tracing not only origins, but also transformations.

CLAIRE: I went to graduate school specifically to study the impact of classical thought in early American political thought, thanks to the good fortune of having found myself in a junior seminar taught by Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen. As I came to learn more about American history and move further away from the ancient world, how I thought about “reception” changed. And as I started asking new questions about how and why ideas and concepts were transformed and repurposed in the past, I sort of stumbled upon Locke.


GLORY: “Reception” can sound passive (“how were Smith’s ideas received?”), but I’m more interested in reception as an active process.  Reception history involves more than studying how people are reading Smith’s works; it also involves looking at how people are actively using, transforming, and adapting Smith’s ideas and intellectual authority in different contexts.

Another way I explain my particular approach to reception history is with a metaphor from economics.  We can think about a thinker’s uptake as having a “supply-side” explanation and a “demand-side” explanation.  The supply-side explanation presumes that Smith’s ideas themselves have some intrinsic qualities that made them powerful in a certain way; perhaps the Wealth of Nations really is a better work of political economy than the Theory of Moral Sentiments was a work of moral philosophy, and that’s why “Smith the economist” eclipsed “Smith the moral philosopher.”  But the demand side has a different starting point.  It takes seriously the political and intellectual demands of Smiths’ readers in their context and how those demands might have shaped their interpretation of his ideas.

This kind of intellectual history is important because it challenges the assumption that there is a single, “true” version of Smith or Locke who means the same thing at all times, and that the founding of a tradition was inevitable.  What Claire and I are trying to show is that Locke and Smith becoming “founders” of a liberal tradition is not inevitable.

CLAIRE: Exactly. I don’t usually describe what I do as “reception history” for many of the same reasons Glory mentions above. Instead, I prefer to identify a constellation of questions that I hope my book will answer. For example, asking the question “What was the basis of Locke’s significance for a particular group of people at X moment?” sometimes leads me away from the specific intellectual content of Locke’s writings—away from Locke’s ideas being “received” in one way or another—and into surprising renderings of a “Locke” that would be largely unrecognizable today. In one way, starting with “the reception of Locke” obscures the questions that help us see that “Locke” is always a moving target—that he and his ideas are never the same thing to different people in different places across time. In another way, ending with “the reception of Locke” obscures the “so what?” questions that I find most interesting, which extend past “reception”: Why does anything that Americans are doing with Locke and his ideas at any given moment matter? In thinking along these lines, I draw tremendous inspiration from Dan Rodgers’s work writing the “biography” of a text, as well as from Emily Jones’s illuminating excavation of how Edmund Burke became the father of modern conservatism.


CLAIRE: How historians are writing reception history is changing, which is making it seem fresh and exciting in new ways. In short, I’d attribute its recent popularity to a combination of three things: the perspectival distance we now have from the middle part of the twentieth century and the Cold War; the foundational work done by intellectual historians in the late twentieth century; and the massive increase in accessibility of materials digitally.

Speaking specifically about Locke in America, we are at a point where we can view the particular set of concerns that drove the twentieth-century Locke craze with enough historical distance to ask our own questions about that moment and begin to excavate the layers of a more distant past beyond it. These questions, which have everything to do with context and contingency, are of course not new; they emerge from work done by intellectual historians a generation ago. For example, Quentin Skinner wrote in 1966 that “the appropriate strategy [for historical enquiry] must…be not to begin by abstracting leading ideas or events, but rather by describing as fully as possible that complex and probably contradictory matrix within which the idea or event to be explained can be most meaningfully located.” The huge increase in accessibility of source material digitally has made such efforts, if not easy, then certainly easier than they were a few decades ago.

GLORY: I think scholars are embracing reception history because it’s so multifaceted and interdisciplinary.  Rather than just writing a history of an idea that’s kind of ethereal, abstract, and disembodied, we get to write about the people and the times they lived in that gave those ideas force.  It forces us to think about a familiar idea and familiar figure in the mind of a different person living in a different time.  And that’s not only really illuminating, it’s also really fun.


CLAIRE: There are many! One advantage of working deeply in university archives is coming across all the amazing doodles that adorn student notes from centuries past. I know Glory has come across these in her work too, so maybe someday we’ll write something about them!

Two challenges are what I call “evidentiary inconsistency” and “veils of ignorance.” The issue of “evidentiary inconsistency” is familiar to all historians: the scope, quality, and nature of our source base(s) is varied and inconsistent. Its challenges become more pronounced when the chronological scope of a project spans such different categories of record-survival-rates. The “veils of ignorance” dilemma is also familiar but presents particular challenges with Locke. Essentially Americans at various points in the past knew less—or different things—about Locke and his work than we know today. A lot of what we now know about the details of Locke’s life comes from a collection of manuscripts called the Lovelace Collection at the Bodleian Library that was not accessible until after World War II. For all the same reasons that I pay attention to the larger political, social, cultural, and intellectual contexts of my subjects, it’s my job to pay attention to the context of what information about Locke was known or accessible at any given point. For example, just because I know—thanks to Peter Laslett’s pioneering work in the mid twentieth century—that the Second Treatisewas not, in fact, written in 1689 in response to the events of 1688, does not mean that nineteenth-century Americans were aware of this.

GLORY: The biggest question that always looms over my head while researching is whether absence of evidence is evidence of absence. It’s easy to spot exact quotations from The Wealth of Nations, or invocations of Smith’s name and to show how and why Smith’s reputation as a political economist became so prominent. It’s much harder to prove a lack of uptake of the Theory of Moral Sentiments, though.  So when I find a nineteenth-century student notebook where the only reference to Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments is a marginal scrawl, or I find a single, short chapter of The Theory of Moral Sentimentsreprinted in an eighteenth-century magazine with no other context, I end up way more questions than I have answers.

Another challenge is figuring out how many degrees of separation “counts.”  For example, Greg Priest has really powerfully shown how Darwin refashions Smith’s ethics, and then the American psychologist William James refashions Darwin.  Does this trajectory speak more to the history of Americans reading Darwinor Americans reading Smith?


GLORY: In terms of similarities, there’s a good deal of “Founders Talk” around Locke and Smith (to borrow a phrase from Caroline Winterer).  Locke gets turned into the founding father of political liberalism, Smith the founder of economic liberalism.  The Founders Chic-ness of these two figures is so prevalent that we must question how and why that’s the case.

There are some pretty big differences between Claire’s work and mine, both methodologically and substantively.  Claire really powerfully shows how Locke’s earlier reputation was built around the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, not the Second Treatise. With Smith, we don’t really see a switch from one to the other (TMS to WN or vice versa).  As far as I can tell with my research now, The Theory of Moral Sentiments just doesn’t have the same degree of initial uptake that The Wealth of Nations does, and so Smith’s reputation was built around the latterAlso, the depth of engagement is pretty different, which likely reflects different disciplinary histories. Whereas Claire’s philosophers in the 19th and 20th centuries are really grappling with Locke’s ideas on their own terms and producing “thick” interpretations of Locke, the politicians and economists I’m looking at just aren’t as interested in a “thick” interpretation of Smith. That is, they’re not interested in producing a contextualized interpretation of Smith’s ideas or recovering his original intentions.  Instead, they’re interested in using the parts of Smith that legitimate their own political and intellectual commitments, whether it’s free trade or price theory.

CLAIRE: I agree! While Smith’s story in America is, as Glory shows, one largely of invention, Locke’s is one largely of reinvention. Our efforts, however, to reveal the processes by which two “icons” of “liberalism” became such in the U.S. share key goals and motivations, despite the differences Glory mentions above. Having such a like-minded interlocutor with whom to exchange ideas makes the work we do so much more enjoyable!