Intellectuals on the margins. Why and how to study the marginal/marginalized in intellectual, cultural and literary history?


PhD students of the Doctoral Schools of Arts, Humanities and Law; PhD students from other (Flemish or Dutch) universities and others.

Organising/Scientific Committee

Ben Dhooge & Steven Vanden Broecke - Faculty of Arts and Philosophy - Department of Languages and Cultures, Department of History
E-mail: &

Other members of the organising & scientific committee

Raymond Detrez (Department of Languages and Cultures, Ghent University,
Berber Bevernage (Department of History, Ghent University,
Jürgen Pieters (Department of Literary Studies, Literary Theory, Ghent University,
Maarten Van Dyck (Department of Philosophy, Ghent University,
Jo Van Steenbergen (Department of Languages and Cultures, Ghent University,
Wim Verbaal (Department of Literary Studies, Latin Language and Literature, Ghent University,
Wim Coudenys (History and Translation Studies, K.U. Leuven,
Massimiliano Simons (Institute of Philosophy, K.U. Leuven, - Otto Boele (Centre for the Arts in Society, Leiden University,
Koen Vermeir (SPHERE - Paris Diderot VII,

Topic and theme

Like everyone else, academics live with histories explaining how their knowledge, ideas and culture came to be. Unlike everyone else, academics are also responsible for producing scientifically authorized versions of such histories. This double situation produces a tension, and it is this tension which this course seeks to explore and articulate. The course does so by questioning one of the most prominent features of the histories we live by: a narrative focus on intellectual and cultural ‘successes’ by ‘geniuses’ clearing a historical trajectory that ultimately leads to our modern, emancipated and rational selves. What happens when our histories try to focus on the marginal penumbra of our intellectual and cultural horizon rather than the bright sun of progress? The course aims to 1) generate in-depth discussions on the issues this question raises; 2) by focusing on the specialists’ research; 3) and by exposing the PhD students to a variety of concepts, frameworks, theoretical insights, methodological issues, concrete case studies, etc. that can enable them to conceptualize, contextualize, analyze … the ((non)importance of) minor figures they encounter and / or focus on in their research.


This course aims to question the dominant, academic narrative focus on intellectual and cultural ‘breakthroughs’ or ‘successes’ by ‘geniuses’. What happens when our narrative focuses on ‘losers’ rather than ‘winners’? Does a history of intellectuals in the margins have advantages to offer and, if so, which? This course brings together five leading experts on the topic and doctoral students working on 'marginal'/'marginalized' topics or figures, for a common exploration of the methodological challenges and advantages that they can bring to their topic (or vice versa).


The course aims to explore 5 core issues:

1) Marginality is not something that ‘just happens’ to certain intellectual or cultural groups over the course of history, but that is also constructed through specific vocabulary and framing techniques (narrative, chronological, spatial, etc.). The course surveys these different techniques and the way in which they operate in academic and everyday life.

2) The course enables one to revisit the infamous issue of cultural and intellectual canons by drawing attention to processes of canonization. How do alternative narratives of breakthroughs and success compete in a socio-political realm, how is their credibility negotiated, and what are the driving forces behind contestatory canons in the public realm?

3) The course seeks to explore various options for developing symmetrical analyses of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. How to establish a table commun where center and margin can be represented as two variants of ‘really’ the same thing, and not in terms of ‘real’ and ‘true’ vs. ‘pseudo’ and ‘false’?

4) The course addresses the heuristic advantages that can be derived from a focus on the margins. What does the center look like from this vantage point; which phenomena come to the fore which are otherwise obscured?

5) The course addresses the possibility of using historical analysis and narrative (as conceived along the aforementioned lines) as a means of generating a more symmetrical dialogue between academic and subaltern knowledge communities in our own societies.


  • Friday 14 December 2018

Egil Asprem, Department of Ethnology, History of Religions and Gender Studies, Stockholm University
Seminar one: “The allure of deviant knowledge: Esotericism between marginality and fascination”
This seminar introduces a key dynamic in the history of Western esotericism: the simultaneous distancing from and attraction to forms of knowledge that are deemed, by experts we trust, wrongheaded, irrational, or outright dangerous. Esotericism owes its particular historical status to a series of rejection processes, to the extent that it can be viewed as a counter-current of “losers” (alchemists, magicians, astrologers, short-lived heterodox sects). Yet at the same time, these figures were not only influential in their own days, producing lasting traces in the history of knowledge; their very oppositional status (mostly ascribed retrospectively) also provide them a certain oppositional appeal that keeps being embraced by new social movements in the modern period. Thus the study of marginal intellectuals must often also include the study of new forms of countercultural capital, and even popularization and mainstreaming.
Seminar two: “Deviant minds: The case of parapsychology”
The second seminar takes the discipline of parapsychology as a case study. Parapsychology emerged out of the spiritualist and psychical research movements in the early twentieth century, and succeeded temporarily and at various locations to establish a professional status with tenured positions in universities, specialist journals, and scientific associations. Paradoxically, it succeeded in doing this not only despite, but partially because of its embrace of a number of heterodox intellectual currents. Nevertheless, the emphasis on massively popular but scientifically problematic themes produced an inherently unstable disciplinary formation. The seminar will look at some of the unexpected twists and turns in the early development of parapsychology that offers some insights into the rise and fall of disciplines. It will also focus on how parapsychologists continue to mobilize their heterodox underdog position to maximize cultural impact.

  • Thursday 31 January 2019

Sonja Brentjes, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science

“Between a rock and a hard place: how to study knowledge fields and their practitioners allegedly marginalized by the so-called Orthodoxy in Islamicate societies?”
History of science in Islamicate societies was presented in the second half of the twentieth century as consisting of two main periods: the Golden Age and the period of decline. The Golden Age saw the rise of brilliant scholars in the mathematical sciences, medicine and philosophy who perfected, reformed or transformed the top-level achievements of ancient Greek scholars. Some of them even went beyond them. The period of decline saw the loss of such innovative scholarship, the rise of repetitive, elementary products with no or marginal new results, leading finally to the disappearance of productive scholarship. During the last two decades, this view of a millennium of scholarship has been questioned and partially dismantled. The main goals of the academics engaged in this revisionist project are to prove the continued vivacity of intellectual activity on high levels and the impact that scholars had on politics and administration in later Islamicate societies. One outcome of their approaches was a bifurcation between history of philosophy where content studies continued to be relevant and the mathematical sciences where context studies became more important. The issue of the huge amount of elementary, repetitive texts and the loss of previously shared knowledge is not addressed. In my presentation I will discuss these historiographical positions, their assumptions and their methods and review my struggles to find alternative ways for studying the sciences in premodern Islamicate societies that would allow us to integrate innovation and excellence with simplistic and boring products and understand scholarly practices in such societies in a holistic manner.

  • Thursday 28 February 2019

Raymond Detrez, KULeuven / Ghent University - "In search for an national identity"
Most historians of nationalism focus on political parties, printing press, student organizations,  choirs and occasionally national heroes, paying little attention to what developing a ‘national consciousness’ actually means to those who do not ‘make’ history, but ‘undergo’ it. In my presentation I attempt to explain national self-identification referring to socialization, personal experiences, successes and failures, proceeding from the life and work of Grigor Părličev. A Bulgarian (as he called himself), born in Ohrid in Macedonia, he acquired an impressive command of literary Greek at the gymnasium in his native city and became al but totally Hellenized. In 1860, as a medical student in Athens, he won the famous Athenian poetry contest with a long epic poem, dealing with Albanian heroes, thus supporting the Greek assertion that Albanians were actually Greeks. Due to his Slavic origin, as he claims in his Autobiography, he was never fully accepted a full member of the Greek nation. After his return home, he became a fierce opponent to the Greek ecclesiastical and cultural dominance in Ohrid. As a local activist of the Bulgarian national movement, he fought for the ‘Bulgarisation’ of worship and education in Macedonia. He also attempted to be accepted as a Bulgarian poet and translator of Homer, but was ridiculed by Bulgarian critics because of his poor knowledge of literary Bulgarian. Having subsequently fallen under the spell of various competing Balkan nationalisms, in spite of his repeated attempts to identify with be adopted by a national community, Părličev always remained ‘an outsider’. Ironically, after World War one, the claim by Macedonian historians that Părličev actually was a Macedonian urged Bulgarian historians to assign him a place in the Bulgarian literary canon. 

  • Thursday 28 March 2019

Galin Tihanov, Queen Mary University, London  - “Power/Insurrection: Porshnev/Foucault”
My starting point in this paper is the mutual appreciation Foucault and Porshnev had for each other's work. But this is only a springboard to help me focus on Porshnev's intellectual growth (from a scholar of insurrection and subversion to a thinker who essays to understand the cultural and psychological mechanisms of evolution), and discuss his peculiar place in the landscape of post-revolutionary Soviet thought. I dwell on his gradual departure from Marxist dogma that was to be compromised - and remain ultimately frustrated - by his later attempt to work within an anthropological framework, which put to the test his expertise as a historian.

  • 26 April 2019

Simon Schaffer, University of Cambridge, Department of History and Philosophy of Science - “Oriental knowledges and the politics of expertise”
In my talk, I will zoom in on the theme of indigenous expertise in colonial South Asia, with materials drawn from the East India Company regime in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and from the British regime in Malaya and Java during the nineteenth century. These episodes raise questions about the relation between dependence, exploitation and effacement in cases of astronomical and natural historical sciences in periods of colonial administration and networks.

  • Friday 24 May 2019

Andrew Sartori, New York University, Department of History - “The Labor Question: Three Idioms of Political Thought in Colonial Bengal”
Political thought in colonial Bengal, starting in the second half of the nineteenth century, could plausibly be characterized as a debate about the social significance of labor. I will sketch a rough typology of the different characterizations of the relevance of labor to political thought in the region, distinguishing between (a) the discourse of poverty, in which labor is understood as a source of wealth, (b) the discourse of culture, in which labor is understood as a source of ethics, and (c) the discourse of property, in which labor is understood as a source of rights. I argue that the centrality of the labor question to Bengali political thought in this period should be understood as a recognition of and response to the practical impossibility of imagining political futures without reference to the constraints and possibilities generated by capitalist social relations. Its history forces us to put pressure on our assumptions that the primary role that the "non-West" should play in intellectual history is to stage "difference."


Ghent University, Simon Stevinzaal, Plateau

Registration and information

By e-mail to Prof. Ben Dhooge

Registration fee

Free of charge for PhD students of the Doctoral School of Arts, Humanities and Law of UGent.


Maximum 12

All reading materials will be available to the participating students before the start of the specialist course.

Evaluation criteria (doctoral training programme)

100 % attendance, active participation, presentation, response papers. For more details, cf. the teaching methods.