Knowledge and Conversion in the Making of Western History, a Philosophical Investigation

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In academia in general, and in the humanistic social sciences in particular, there is a problem. The "cruel optimism" of concepts is a problem faced by every specialization, and every discipline (Berlant 2011). In the social sciences, and history especially, cruel optimism takes the form of an endless quest to prove that our concepts today are superior to the concepts of yesterday, that if we work hard enough and get our methods just right, we will finally find pure, objective, true concepts to express historical reality. I use this dissertation in order to reconfigure our relationship with our concepts, to try to grapple with and ultimately subdue the cruel optimism of concepts. I employ discourse analysis, a method of analyzing knowledge as the imprint of dynamic relations of force and friction between institutions and human beings. Rather than seeing our social scientific concepts as the result of methodical research applied to a critical mass of archival documents, I see them as the result of power relations that are used to control reality as much as they purport to describe it. My materials are documentary sources—published social science scholarship and declassified intelligence reports using social scientific analysis. My conclusion is that we can use our concepts in a way that releases us from the dread of cruel optimism, so long as we see them as "snapshots of processes" (Levins 2006) rather than things in themselves.






Ali, Mohammed Syed (2023). Knowledge and Conversion in the Making of Western History, a Philosophical Investigation. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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