Articles from the Institute Letter

Additional articles from new and past issues of the Institute Letter will continue to be posted over time and as they become available.

By Elizabeth Bernstein

"Rescued" sex workers in lockdown in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

In recent years, the trafficking of women and children into the sex sector has become the focus of a steady spate of media coverage, the subject of abundant policy interventions, and the target of local, national, and transnational activist campaigns uniting highly diverse constituencies. From the political left to the far right, from secular feminists to evangelical Christians, sex trafficking is frequently described as “modern day slavery” and is considered to be a moral question that is “beyond politics,” something no one could possibly claim to be “for.” This unity is all the more striking given the fact that definitions of the term remain murky, with many states and activists applying it not only to forced but also to voluntary forms of sexual labor. Despite this ambiguity, sex trafficking has risen to a position of cultural and political prominence that it has not held since the “white slavery” panic similarly circled the globe at the turn of the last century.

This surge of interest presents sociologists and other scholars with some vexing social and historical questions. If prostitution is the “oldest profession,” why the resurgence of interest in it now? How has the issue of sex trafficking come to unite constituencies that otherwise have opposing politics and interests, especially in relation to matters of sex and gender (as ongoing political controversies over gay marriage and abortion powerfully reveal)?


By Eugene Kontorovich

Capture of suspected pirates in the Gulf of Aden

My work uses the international response to piracy, both historical and contemporary, to assess the effectiveness of international criminal law and co­operation. Recent decades have witnessed the unprecedented growth of international criminal law and institutions. These developments are seen widely as signs of international law’s maturation: it now directly regulates individuals and is backed by criminal sanctions. Scholars and activists now imagine a future in which a cosmopolitan international law will break through national self-dealing to bring “an end to impunity” for atrocious crimes, fostering a world based on norms rather than power. On the other hand, some worry that internationalization will come at the expense of accountability and democracy, or simply dress geopolitical vendettas in legal robes.

The current debates about international justice remain mostly normative and theoretical. To the extent that they invoke precedent and evidence, they are drawn from the small universe of international criminal cases in the past two decades. It is evident that the modern international criminal justice system is not fully developed. The much vaunted International Criminal Court, for example, has only convicted one defendant. Its future efficacy and consequences cannot be assessed or predicted from its present embryonic state. Piracy provides a unique study in the progress and potential of international criminal law. For hundreds of years it has been a universal jurisdiction crime—one which any nation can prosecute, even with no connection to the offense. Indeed, the modern regime of international criminal justice was inspired by the legal treatment of piracy. Studying the legal treatment of piracy allows one to see what a fully matured system of universal justice would look like.


By W. Anthony Sheppard

The original tune sheet, listing the song titles in nonstandard transliteration and in Chinese characters, of the Morris Museum's music box

When I arrived at the Institute last September, I thought I knew exactly what I would accomplish as a Member in the School of Historical Studies—I would complete my book, Extreme Exoticism: Japan in the American Musical Imagination, and would launch a new project on vocal timbre in twentieth-century music. By January, having made reasonable progress, these goals still appeared attainable. However, through a chance encounter with a nineteenth-century musical artifact, my carefully crafted research schedule was completely derailed. This opportune encounter led me to make a series of discoveries concerning two of Puccini’s operas and to develop insights into the global circulation of music over the past two centuries.
My wife and I had promised our children we would occasionally visit our home during the year. The distance between Pownal, Vermont, and Princeton, New Jersey, proved crucial to the direction my research would take. The drive is just long enough to invite stops at cultural and natural attractions in northern New Jersey. As graduate students at Princeton in the early 1990s, we had visited the Morris Museum in Morristown to view its collection of American art. I was aware that the museum had since dramatically expanded its holdings to include the Guinness Collection of mechanical musical instruments and automata, and so we decided to visit again last January. I soon discovered that scholarly serendipity may strike in surprising settings.


By John Hopfield

From Rudyard Kipling's "Just So" story "The Elephant's Child"

All of us who have watched as a friend or relative has disappeared into the fog of Alzheimer’s arrive at the same truth. Although we recognize people by their visual appearance, what we really are as individual humans is determined by how our brains operate. The brain is certainly the least understood organ in the human body. If you ask a cardiologist how the heart works, she will give an engineering description of a pump based on muscle contraction and valves between chambers. If you ask a neurologist how the brain works, how thinking takes place, well . . . Do you remember Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, full of fantastical evolutionary explanations, such as the one about how the elephant got its trunk? They are remarkably similar to a medical description of how the brain works.

The annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience attracts over thirty thousand registrants. It is not for lack of effort that we understand so little of how the brain functions. The problem is one of the size, complexity, and individuality of the human brain. Size: the human brain has approximately one hundred billion nerve cells, each connecting to one thousand others. Complexity: there are one hundred different types of nerve cells, each with its own detailed properties. Individuality: all humans are similar, but the operation of each brain is critically dependent on its individual details. Your particular pattern of connections between nerve cells contains your personality, your language skills, your knowledge of family, your college education, and your golf swing.


By Brandon C. Look

While all previous philosophers were, in (above) Immanuel Kant’s mind, guilty of various errors, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz occupied a special position in his conception of the history of philosophy and the history of reason’s pretensions.

If the eighteenth century is to be seen as the “Age of Reason,” then one of the crucial stories to be told is of the trajectory of philosophy from one of the most ardent proponents of the powers of human reason, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716), to the philosopher who subjected the claims of reason to their most serious critique, Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). Not only is the story of Kant’s Auseinandersetzung with Leibniz important historically, it is also important philosophically, for it has implications about the nature and possibility of metaphysics, that branch of philosophy concerned with fundamental questions such as what there is, why there is anything at all, how existing things are causally connected, and how the mind latches onto the world. Like many philosophical debates, however, it is also prone to a kind of “eternal recurrence” to those who are ignorant of it. 

Leibniz was a “rationalist” philosopher; that is, he was committed to two theses: (i) he believed that the mind has certain innate ideas—it is not, as John Locke and his fellow empiricists say, a tabula rasa or blank slate; and (ii) he believed in—and, in fact, made explicit—the “principle of sufficient reason,” according to which “there is nothing for which there is not a reason why it is so and not otherwise.” This principle had enormous metaphysical consequences for Leibniz, for it allowed him to argue that the world, as a series of contingent things, could not have the reason for its existence within it; rather there must be an extramundane reason—God. Further, as a response to the mind-body problem, Leibniz advanced the theory of “pre-established harmony,” according to which there is no interaction at all between substances; the mind proceeds and “unfolds” according to its own laws, and the body moves according to its own laws, but they do so in perfect harmony, as is fitting for something designed and created by God. Strictly speaking, however, Leibniz was not a dualist; he did not believe that there were minds and bodies—at least not in the same sense and at the most fundamental level of reality. Rather, in his mature metaphysical view, there are only simple substances, or monads, mind-like beings endowed with forces that ground all phenomena. Finally, according to Leibniz, since these simple substances are ontologically primary and ground the phenomena of matter and motion, space and time are merely the ordered relations derivative of the corporeal phenomena. Leibniz contrasted his view with that of Isaac Newton, according to whom there is a sense in which space and time can be considered absolute and space can be considered something substantial.