political myths

Dan Edelstein

portrait: Dan Edelstein

102 Pigott Hall
650 724 9881

Office Hours: 
Tuesday 10:00-12:00
Focal Group(s): 
Digital Humanities
Focal Group(s): 
Humanities Education
Focal Group(s): 
Philosophy and Literature
Curriculum Vitae: 

I work for the most part on eighteenth-century France, with research interests at the crossroads of literature, history, political theory, and digital humanities. My first book, The Terror of Natural Right: Republicanism, the Cult of Nature, and the French Revolution (University of Chicago Press, 2009), examines how liberal natural right theories, classical republicanism, and the myth of the golden age became fused in eighteenth-century political culture, only to emerge as a violent ideology during the Terror. This book won the 2009 Oscar Kenshur Book Prize. My second book, entitled The Enlightenment: A Genealogy (University of Chicago Press, 2010), explores how the idea of an Enlightenment emerged in French academic circles around the 1720's. I’ve also edited two volumes of essays, one for Yale French Studies, on Myth and Modernity, the other for SVEC (Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century) on The Super-Enlightenment. In addition, I’ve published articles on such topics as the Encyclopédie, antiquarianism, Orientalism, the Idéologues, political authority, and structuralism, as well as on writers including Jean-Sylvain Bailly, Balzac, Roland Barthes, Lévi-Strauss, Michelet, Mallarmé, Georges Sorel, Emmerich de Vattel, and Voltaire.

At Stanford, I mostly teach courses on the literature, philosophy, culture, and politics of the Enlightenment; on nineteenth-century novels; the French Revolution; early-modern political thought; and French intellectual culture (“Coffee & Cigarettes”). I teach two Thinking Matters courses, one on "Education as Self-Fashioning," the other on "Networks: Ecological, Revolutionary, and Digital." I’ve received the Walter J. Gores Award for Excellence in Teaching (in 2006), the university's highest teaching honor, and the Dean's Distinguished Teaching Award (in 2011).

I’m currently working on three main projects:

A comparative study of revolutionary authority. This book-length project examines how (and when) “revolution” became in and of itself a means of justifying revolutionary action. Stretching from the sixteenth century to the present, it focuses in particular on the appearance and evolution of revolutionary “myths” (drawing on Georges Sorel’s definition of the term). An article from this project recently appeared in French Historical Studies.

Nature and natural right in the Enlightenment. This project looks broadly at the different ways in which nature served as a “moral authority” (Lorraine Daston) in the eighteenth century. In particular, I examine how the philosophes developed a current of natural right theory that was distinct (and considerably different) from the philosophical-jurisprudential tradition. I carry this study up through the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. A version of this research ("Enlightenment Rights Talk") is forthcoming in the Journal of Modern History.

Mapping the Republic of Letters. Along with a number of colleagues at Stanford and around the world, I’m involved in a large-scale digital humanities project, one of whose primary aims is to map the correspondence networks of major intellectual figures. For more information, visit Mapping the Republic of Letters. You can also read about our project in the Stanford Report and in the New York Times.

I’m also a founding editor of Republics of Letters, and with J.P. Daughton, I co-direct the French Culture Workshop.


2004: Ph.D. in French, University of Pennsylvania
1999: Licence ès lettres (French, English, Latin), Université de Genève
1993: Maturité scientifique, Collège Calvin, Geneva

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