Professor of History

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Books

Sophia Rosenfeld is the author of three books, Democracy and Truth: A Short History (2018), Common Sense: A Political History (2014), and A Revolution in Language: The Problem of Signs in Late Eighteenth-Century France (2001).

 

Books


 
 
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Democracy and Truth: A Short History

university of pennsylvania press | 2018

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"Fake news," wild conspiracy theories, misleading claims, doctored photos, lies peddled as facts, facts dismissed as lies—citizens of democracies increasingly inhabit a public sphere teeming with competing claims and counterclaims, with no institution or person possessing the authority to settle basic disputes in a definitive way.

The problem may be novel in some of its details—including the role of today's political leaders, along with broadcast and digital media, in intensifying the epistemic anarchy—but the challenge of determining truth in a democratic world has a backstory. In this lively and illuminating book, historian Sophia Rosenfeld explores a longstanding and largely unspoken tension at the heart of democracy between the supposed wisdom of the crowd and the need for information to be vetted and evaluated by a learned elite made up of trusted experts. What we are witnessing now is the unraveling of the détente between these competing aspects of democratic culture.

In four bracing chapters, Rosenfeld substantiates her claim by tracing the history of the vexed relationship between democracy and truth. She begins with an examination of the period prior to the eighteenth-century Age of Revolutions, where she uncovers the political and epistemological foundations of our democratic world. Subsequent chapters move from the Enlightenment to the rise of both populist and technocratic notions of democracy between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to the troubling trends—including the collapse of social trust—that have led to the rise of our "post-truth" public life. Rosenfeld concludes by offering suggestions for how to defend the idea of truth against the forces that would undermine it.

“An essential guide to finding the roots of our current predicament, this short book provokes thought rather than simply assigning blame and consequently succeeds in the most important task of all: helping us navigate toward a revival of democracy at the very moment when it seems most under threat.” — Lynn Hunt, UCLA

“One of our most audaciously gifted historians offers a deep, subtle, and suitably prickly examination of a newly vexing set of issues. Indispensable. Irresistible.” — Don Herzog, University of Michigan Law School

“A valuable historical guide to current debates about elitism and populism, Democracy and Truth poses the hardest of questions: can we maintain a constitutional government worthy of a free people in an age of widespread misinformation and fanaticism?” — David Bromwich, Yale University

“If you are a citizen concerned and not a little confused about the frantic assault on objective truth in today's United States, Sophia Rosenfeld's learned but extremely accessible book is a must-read. Democracy and Truth explains and reveals the historical and intellectual roots of the tension between the two values named in the title, and it shows that truth can prevail—but never without a fight.” — Michael Tomasky, author of Left for Dead: The Life, Death, and Possible Resurrection of Progressive Politics in America


 

 
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Prizes:

Mark Lynton History Prize, Columbia University, 2012

SHEAR Book Prize (Society for Historians of the Early American Republic), 2011

Translations:

French (Le Sens commun: Histoire d’une idée politique, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2014)

Korean (Boogle Books, 2011)

Common Sense: A Political History

Harvard University press | 2014

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Common sense has always been a cornerstone of American politics. In 1776, Thomas Paine’s vital pamphlet with that title sparked the American Revolution. And today, common sense—the wisdom of ordinary people, knowledge so self-evident that it is beyond debate—remains a powerful political ideal, utilized alike by George W. Bush’s aw-shucks articulations and Barack Obama’s down-to-earth reasonableness. But far from self-evident is where our faith in common sense comes from and how its populist logic has shaped modern democracy. Common Sense: A Political History is the first book to explore this essential political phenomenon.

The story begins in the aftermath of England’s Glorious Revolution, when common sense first became a political ideal worth struggling over. This accessible and insightful account then wends its way across two continents and multiple centuries, revealing the remarkable individuals who appropriated the old, seemingly universal idea of common sense and the new strategic uses they made of it. Paine may have boasted that common sense is always on the side of the people and opposed to the rule of kings, but Rosenfeld demonstrates that common sense has been used to foster demagoguery and exclusivity as well as popular sovereignty. She provides a new account of the transatlantic Enlightenment and the Age of Revolutions, and offers a fresh reading on what the eighteenth century bequeathed to the political ferment of our own time. Far from commonsensical, the history of common sense turns out to be rife with paradox and surprise.

“Sophia Rosenfeld’s superb intellectual history traces the strange birth and controversial afterlives of one of our most fundamental political concepts. Lively and learned, it sheds long-range light on contemporary anxieties about democratic populism and those who would manipulate it in the name of ‘common sense.’” — David Armitage, Harvard University

“Breathtakingly original and daring, this book will force every reader to rethink the foundations of democracy in the modern world.” — Lynn Hunt, UCLA

“Rosenfeld illuminates one of the key ingredients of democratic-populist politics: that the common sense of the people offers a better guide to politics than the wisdom of elites. Learned and arresting, this book compels us to see that the rhetoric of common sense is anything but straightforward—or common.” — Daniel T. Rodgers, Princeton University


Reviews: Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe (Brainiac blog), American Prospect, Pop Matters, Library Journal, London Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement, Choice, Reviews in History, Révolution française.net, H-Law, Isis, American Historical Review, Political Theory, History: Review of New Books, The Historian, Journal of Modern History, Law and Society Review, Journal of the Early Republic, H-France, Political Studies Review, Canadian Journal of History, Journal of British Studies, Contributions to the History of Concepts, Reviews in American History, Historical Materialism, Philosophy Now, Études: revue de culture contemporaine, Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine, La Vie des idées, Acta Fabula, Revue française d’études américaines, Revue française de science politique.

 

 
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A Revolution in Language: The Problem of Signs in Late Eighteenth-Century France

STANFORD University press | 2001

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What is the relationship between the ideas of the Enlightenment and the culture and ideology of the French Revolution? This book takes up that classic question by concentrating on changing conceptions of language and, especially, signs during the second half of the eighteenth century.

The author traces, first, the emergence of a new interest in the possibility of gestural communication within the philosophy, theater, and pedagogy of the last decades of the Old Regime. She then explores the varied uses and significance of a variety of semiotic experiments, including the development of a sign language for the deaf, within the language politics of the Revolution.

A Revolution in Language shows not only that many key revolutionary thinkers were unusually preoccupied by questions of language, but also that prevailing assumptions about words and other signs profoundly shaped revolutionaries' efforts to imagine and to institute an ideal polity between 1789 and the start of the new century. This book reveals the links between Enlightenment epistemology and the development of modern French political culture.

“Sopia Rosenfeld's intriguing study deals with a chapter in the intellectual history of the Old Regime and the Revolution of 1789, the puzzle of language. . . . A very fine piece of historical scholarship. . . . This really is a must-read for any serious student of the French Revolution.” — History: Reviews of New Books

“Until Rosenfeld's book, no one has attempted to explain in any convincing manner why the meanings and usage of words were so central to revolutionary political culture. . . . [A] well-researched and creatively argued book for those who claim that the revolution was, above all else, a misplaced and deadly struggle to determine who would speak for the nation.” — American Historical Review

“A Revolution in Language is a thoroughly researched and documented study that convincingly demonstrates the extent to which both philosophes and revolutionaries were preoccupied with problems of language. It furthermore shows that the epistemology of the Enlightenment strongly affected not only the thinking of revolutionary leaders, but also the development of modern French political culture.” — Gita May, Columbia University


Reviews: The New Republic, American Historical Review, History, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, History of European Ideas, Dix-huitième siècle [regular review and featured in a review essay], Literary Research/Recherche Littéraire, Annales historiques de la Révolution française, Journal of Modern History, French Review, French Politics, Culture and Society, Canadian Journal of History, Histoire, Epistémologie, Langage