Prof. Matthew Sterenberg
My field of research is the intellectual and cultural history of modern Britain. This means that I study how ideas developed in the context of their time. One idea in particular, the idea of “rationality”, has occupied my interest recently, and most of my sabbatical leave was spent researching how the meaning of this idea was contested and debated in twentieth-century Britain. This is my primary research project at present, and I expect to be working on it and related issues for at least a few more years. During my sabbatical I completed two publications on this topic, one on how the sociologist Norbert Elias (1897-1990) used the concept of rationality and another on how the Scottish philosopher John Macmurray (1891-1976; see Figure 1 below) attempted to redefine it as part of a larger effort to strengthen democracy in the 1930s. While it is often assumed that thinking rationally depends on suppressing or controlling the emotions, Macmurray argued that rationality depended on properly integrating emotions into the process of reasoning. He made this argument at a time when many other thinkers were increasingly concerned about the relationship between reason and emotion, in part because of the rise of fascism in Europe. My article exploring theses issues, “John Macmurray and the politics of rationality in interwar Britain,” will be published (hopefully soon!) in the journal History of European Ideas.
Historical research often involves visiting libraries and archives in order to read and examine documents that are not available elsewhere. During my sabbatical leave I was able to visit three different archives that held materials crucial to my research. At the British Library in London (see Figure 2 below) I was able to read printed materials from the 1930s that are simply not available elsewhere, including virtually everything Macmurray published in the 1930s. It may surprise you to learn that the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas (see Figure 3 below) holds one of the largest collections of documents related to twentieth-century British writers. I was able to examine private papers of L. Susan Stebbing (1885-1943), a philosopher who was Macmurray’s contemporary and who had similar concerns about the relationship between reason and emotion. Another thinker interested in this problem was the chemist and philosopher Michael Polanyi (1891-1976), and I was able to study his private papers at the University of Chicago Library. The material gleaned from these visits either has been or will be used in my writings/publications on the history of rationality.
Finally, sabbatical leave allowed me to read widely in a way not possible during a normal year. Not only did this allow me to catch up with recent research in my field, it also allowed me to identify a new research topic—the history of medical ethics in twentieth-century Britain—which I hope will become the subject of my next book. I’m grateful to my colleagues at the School of International Liberal Studies and to Waseda University for making my sabbatical leave possible.