Articles by IAS Faculty

Climate Change and the Rise of an Empire

By Nicola Di Cosmo 

Did an unusually favorable climate create conditions for a new political order under Chinggis Khan?

In his recent book Global Crisis: War, Climate Change & Catas­trophe in the Seventeenth Century, Geoffrey Parker states: “although climate change can and does produce human catastrophe, few historians include the weather in their analyses.” This is generally true, and the distance between historians and the weather may not have improved (indeed, may have been underscored) by the evolution of environmental history as a separate branch of historical research. Moreover, while the collection of historical climate data has never been more robust, instances of collaboration between scientists and historians are still very few and far between. In 2006, the National Science Foundation launched a program for research on Coupled Natural and Human Systems, capturing the need to model the interaction between societies and environments. Few of the projects funded so far, however, involve a long-term historical perspective or engage actual historical questions. One of these, funded last year, is titled “Pluvials, Droughts, Energetics, and the Mongol Empire” and is led by Neil Pederson, Amy Hessl, Nachin Baatarbileg, Kevin Anchukaitis, and myself.

Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution

By Jonathan Israel 

A sixteenth-century painting of Charles IX in front of the Parliament of Paris on August 26,1572, attempting to justify the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre.

How freedom of the theater promised to be a major extension of liberty

Early on in the French Revolution, in his memoir on press freedom submitted to the Estates-General in June 1789, Jean-Pierre Brissot (1754–93), later a prominent revolutionary leader, proclaimed liberty of the press “un droit naturel à l’homme.” Loathed by Maximilien Robespierre, Brissot, together with his political allies, was later guillotined in October 1793 by the Montagne, the political faction that organized the Terror of 1793–94. During 1789 and throughout the period down to the coup that brought the Montagne to power in June 1793, no one publicized the demand for full freedom of expression more vigorously than Brissot. He also raised the issue of liberty from theater censorship, something which at that time existed nowhere in Europe, or indeed anywhere else, and never had. Theater freedom mattered more for renewing “liberty” than people think, he explained, since the theater exerts a great influence  “sur l’esprit public,” a point he would develop further, he adds, were not a writer of talent—the playwright Marie-Joseph Chénier (1762–1811)—already doing so. Among the Revolution’s principal champions of free expression, this literary ally of Brissot’s was the brother of the poet André Chénier who was guillotined by the Montagne in July 1794. 

By July 1789, the month of the storming of the Bastille, the question was no longer whether revolutionary France should possess freedom of expression and of the press—all the revolutionaries then agreed that it should—but rather whether this freedom required limits. Should there be “liberté illimité de la presse” without legal responsibility for calumny or inciting violence? This posed a dilemma for the national legislature, for aside from the principle itself, there was much uncertainty and anxiety about the unpredictable consequences. Many believed the campaign to bring “philosophy” and Enlightenment to the people would fail. Press freedom and the other new rights were justified in the people’s name, and yet, not one-hundredth part of the people actually read, warned the veteran republican writer and future deputy, Louis-Sébastien Mercier (1740–1814), while only one-thousandth part read with sufficient discernment and knowledge to separate truth from falsehood. The “ordinary man, being ignorant,” he admonished, judges politicians’ reputations by popular reputation rather than talent or knowledge—with predictably disastrous results.

The Legacy of Mandela’s Life: A Political and Moral Hero

By Didier Fassin 

Nelson Mandela, the first democratically elected president of South Africa
Nelson Mandela, the first democratically elected president of South Africa

Mandela reinstated the rights of those who were oppressed and restored their dignity without perpetuating resentment or inciting retaliation.

On the eve of South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, few observers thought that the day would pass without bloodshed. A smooth transition toward democracy seemed very unlikely. Having been in a state of emergency from 1985 to 1990, the country had suffered from years of civil war­–like conditions. In the early 1990s, the police force of the apartheid regime, white suprem­acists, and secessionist Zulus had massacred members of the African National Congress. The charismatic General Secretary of the Communist Party, Chris Hani, had been the recent victim of an assassination ordered by a member of the Conservative Party. And during ANC meetings the crowd would sing the combative chant “Kill the Boer.” Thus, it was an unlikely transition, even more so because South African President Frederik de Klerk was accused of supporting the Inkatha Freedom Party of Mangosuthu Buthelezi, which was implicated in the violent outbreaks.

Ellsworth Kelly's Dream of Impersonality

By Yve-Alain Bois 

Ellsworth Kelly's Train Landscape (1952–53) refers to the colors of fields seen from a train. © Ellsworth Kelly

How things that look apparently very simple are in fact much more complex than they seem

Ellsworth Kelly is one of the very first artists whose work I liked. Perhaps he was second, just after Piet Mondrian. One of the things I asked Kelly after we finally met and became friends, close to a quarter of a century ago, was why he had not answered a fan letter that I had written to him in my teens. He remembered the letter. He had received it at a time when he felt isolated, bypassed by a new generation of artists, and he had been struck by the fact that it came from a French teenager living in the middle of nowhere—he thought he might even have kept it. Since Kelly is a demon archivist, he found the darn letter, and he gave me a copy of it, which, unlike him, I immediately misplaced. But I read it, and it was humbling. First, because I realized I had misdated it in my memory, placing it three years too early—probably because the main event it described, my first encounter with his works, at a show of his lithographs at the Galerie Adrien Maeght in Paris, dated from even earlier to 1965. Second, because it was sheer adolescent drivel. At the time of the letter, Kelly was for me the purest representative of pure abstraction, whatever that is supposed to be.

Economics: Science, Craft, or Snake Oil?

By Dani Rodrik 

Barbara Smaller/The New Yorker Collection

When economists skip over real-world complications, it’s as if physicists spoke of a world without gravity.

When the 2013 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel (colloquially known as the “Economics Nobel”) was awarded to Eugene Fama and Robert Shiller, along with Lars Peter Hansen, many were puzzled by the selection. Fama and Shiller are both distinguished and highly regarded scholars, so it was not their qualifications that raised eyebrows. What seemed odd was that the committee had picked them together.

After all, the two economists seem to hold diametrically opposed views on how financial markets work. Fama, the University of Chicago economist, is the father of the “efficient market hypothesis,” the theory that asset prices reflect all publicly available information, with the implication that it is impossible to beat the market consistently. Shiller, the Yale economist, meanwhile, has spent much of his career demonstrating financial markets work poorly: they overshoot, are subject to “bubbles” (sustained rises in asset prices that cannot be explained by fundamentals), and are often driven by “behavioral” rather than rational forces. Could both these scholars be right? Was the Nobel committee simply hedging its bets?

While one cannot read the jury’s mind, its selection highlighted a central feature of economics—and a key difference between it and the natural sciences. Economics deals with human behavior, which depends on social and institutional context. That context in turn is the creation of human behavior, purposeful or not. This implies that propositions in economic science are typically context-specific, rather than universal. The best, and most useful, economic theories are those that draw clear causal links from a specific set of contextual assumptions to predicted outcomes.