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Mark Lilla

Mark Lilla is the author of G.B. Vico: The Making of an Anti-Modern. He teaches political theory and French studies at New York University.

Pseuds’ Skyscraper

Mark Lilla, 5 June 1997

My architecture is about presence and absence.’ The lecture hall at the American Academy in Rome was dark and on the projection screen before us was an image of jagged fields of colour. The speaker, a black-clad young architect from New York, was delivering his Fellow’s Lecture. Since most of the previous lectures had been given by historians occupied with mapping the drainage ditches of ancient Pompeii or cataloguing the patronage of Renaissance door jambs, his rambling ‘deconstructivist’ reflections on modern buildings brought a nervous titter from the unknowing audience. Only after the Derridian cloud evaporated and the speaker turned to his own work did the listeners feel themselves back on terra cognita. This ‘work’, as it turned out, consisted of a few modest apartment conversions in Manhattan, and slides of these evoked many polite questions about the placement of sinks and who paid for the wainscoting.

The Sober Science

Mark Lilla, 20 April 1995

The modern social sciences were born out of modern political philosophy. Overtime, those sciences declared their independence one by one from the philosophical tradition, then tried to reshape it after their own image. The intimate relation between economics and Anglo-American liberal thought, now centuries old, offers a classic example. A similar story might be told on the Continent, though for different social sciences in different countries. When, for example, the Continental Left sought a non-liberal alternative to orthodox Marxism in the post-war years, the Germans leaned towards sociology, the French towards anthropology. In part, this choice was dictated by political events. The Frankfurt sociology of Jürgen Habermas became prominent in the wake of the Wirtschaftswunder, while the structural anthropology of Claude Lévi-Strauss spoke to French misgivings about the colonial experience. In both countries these disciplines became as much means of engaging in politics as sciences for studying it.

The trouble with the Enlightenment

Mark Lilla, 6 January 1994

In his distinguished career as an intellectual historian, Isaiah Berlin has established himself as our foremost collector of stray philosophical puppies. Vico, Herder, Maistre, and now Hamann: these are not household names, not even in the upper reaches of what used to be called the Ivory Tower. Berlin’s interest in them is anything but pedantic, however. In essay after elegant essay he has laboured to persuade us that these half-forgotten thinkers can help us to answer the central question raised by modern historical experience: how did the optimistic, progressive spirit of the 18th-century Enlightenment give way to the two dark and dangerous centuries that followed? And while he has offered no final answer to this question, he believes one is to be sought in the clash of rival instincts and irreconcilable aims that have haunted the modern mind. Enlightenment versus Counter-Enlightenment, rationalism versus romanticism, monism versus pluralism, hedgehogs versus foxes, positive liberty versus negative liberty – it is in these oppositions that we must try to understand ourselves and our times.’

Passionate Politics

James Meek, 30 November 2017

What is identity politics? Is it, to paraphrase Dylan Thomas, a part of society you don’t like that’s fighting for its interests as fiercely as yours does? Or is it, as Mark Lilla puts it...

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Closing Time

Pankaj Mishra, 20 September 2017

It remains to be seen whether America, Britain, Europe and liberalism can be made great again. But it already seems clear that the racial supremacist in the White House and many of his opponents are engaged...

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God and Politics

David Hollinger, 24 January 2008

‘To ask me to check my Christian beliefs at the public door is to ask me to expel the Holy Spirit from my life when I serve as a congressman,’ declares Mark Souder, a conservative...

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History Man

John Robertson, 4 November 1993

The current fascination with Vico in the English-speaking world owes almost everything to the attention he has received from Isaiah Berlin. Before Berlin, Vico was the obscure Neapolitan...

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