- Inventing Human Rights: A History
Lynn Hunt's latest book demonstrates that she has been working on the themes of its respective chapters for many years. The work derives its strengths from her well-established authority on eighteenth-century European literature, pre- and postrevolutionary political debate, and the interface between urban and rural constituencies as they melded and reformed in the context of extreme violence. The first four chapters stand alone as lucid and well-researched original essays on four components of a historiographical debate familiar to scholars of revolutionary France. Collectively these chapters turn around a key question: In what context did the ambiguous "language of human rights" emerge?
Chapter 1 explores the emergence of emotional "interiority" (p. 48) in the pre-Revolutionary French and British novel. Novels, she argues, prelude self-determination, sympathy, and sensibility as a "path to human rights" (p. 68). Chapter 2 offers a framework for understanding the fundamental role of the guillotine in the revolutionary era. The [End Page 339] historical emergence of the concept of a "prompt" death, possibly with dignity, in urban and provincial France, is part of Hunt's broader argument for the emergence of a "self-contained person" (p. 82), against which torture and public cruelty spectacles defused into cautionary humane punishment. Chapters 1 and 2 complement each other, as emotion does to reason. Chapters 3 and 4 stand together as a history of this declarative epoch, within the wider context of republicanism and emerging transatlantic universalism. Hunt's command of the material and the wit with which she evaluates the evidence are perhaps unparalleled. And her most compelling section concerns the deliberations over Protestants, Jews, and "free blacks," juxtaposed with those about women's rights. The rapid and at times inconsistent approach (see p. 157 for delightful nuance) to these constituencies is viewed as concrete "momentum" (p. 171) for the "modern philosophy of human rights in its purest form" (p. 170). The final chapter is a free-form essay on rights in an exclusively Eurocentric context, as well as the political calamities that gripped nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe.
Notwithstanding the originality and creativity of the individual chapter narratives, Hunt's overall architecture has significant structural flaws. The introduction to the book, presumably written after the first four empirically driven chapters consolidated themselves, tries to shift the debate in a fundamentally different direction than that suggested by the chapters. Hunt argues that eighteenth-century rights remained indeterminate because the emotional appeal undergirding their emergence was unsustainable at the time. To decapitate this obdurate straw human, Hunt's introduction proposes to replace prevailing narrative of revolution and republic, with a history of the cultural practice of empathy (and subordinate to it, autonomy), subsequently retitled as the "invention" of human rights. While independently of the book this may be a plausible thesis, the subsequent chapters outlined above do not sustain such an argument. The "practices" of empathy, she argues, spurted to life in the eighteenth century. And yet they have always existed because they are "rooted in the biology of the brain" (p. 39). They are simultaneously originating and natural. She observes decreasing parental authority, the increasing accessibility of "ordinary" lives to a larger audience (via popular literature and the press, for example), shifts in notions of body and personhood (selfhood), and the proliferation of public spaces in which many new notions can be "imagined."
Among Hunt's stated goals is a second that is unsustained in the work as a whole, namely historicizing the increased cogency of the claim of the self-evidence of rights. At first glimpse, this claim is an attractive [End Page 340] assertion because it resituates Hunt's narrative of French public and private thought within an emerging narrative of pre- and postrevolutionary United States. At the same time, however, this desired narrative is curtailed by her competing claim to "refocus attention on what goes on in individual minds" (p. 34). The adaptation of one of Benedict Anderson's most significant conceptual departures—imagined communities—is...