by Lynn Hunt. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007. 272pp. Hardcover. $25.95. ISBN: 9780393060959.

Reviewed by Mark J. Harris, Jurisprudence and Social Policy, University of California, Berkeley. Email: mark [at]


Thinking Human Rights

Lynn Hunt tackles a breathtaking question in INVENTING HUMAN RIGHTS:

Given an 18th century world in which the subservience of Africans, women, the propertyless, and several more categories of persons was not only ubiquitous but also experienced as a reflection of nature itself, how could the idea of universal human rights, particularly those in the American Declaration of Independence and the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen become thinkable? After all, this was a revolution in ideas from those who directly benefited from the old world’s inequalities. Why did they, however imperfectly, dream of and aspire to create a world of universal equality?

Her answer is no less intriguing. The 18th century saw a profound moral transformation, through which human beings came to see themselves as autonomous, self-possessed creatures, and importantly, that other human beings were similarly autonomous creatures who deserved similar treatment. This shift was a psychological change, a new capacity of people to empathize across social boundaries. So where did this newfound empathy come from? The reading of epistolary novels, a newly popular narrative form of novel read through personal letters the characters send to one another. For example, Rousseau published in 1761, a year before the SOCIAL CONTRACT, an internationally popular novel: JULIE, or the NEW HÉLOÏSE, a tragic love story. Hunt writes, “Courtiers, clergy, military officers, and all manner of ordinary people wrote to Rousseau to describe their feelings of a ‘devouring fire,’ their ‘emotions upon emotions,’ ‘upheavals upon upheavals,’” (p.36) all evidence of a new capacity to identify with the plight of a dissimilarly situated human being. It was because of these novels, she argues, that large numbers of people understood that servants, slaves, the rich and poor, the foreigner and fellow citizen alike shared enormous depths of feeling and the capacity to suffer pain both physical and psychological.

Hunt also wants to convince historians to look at psychological changes within individual minds as a catalyst of historical change. I wish, perhaps, this theoretical argument could have been developed more fully, but to do so would have been a different book. A (perhaps overly critical) review taking this tack appeared in HARPER’S in the May 2007 edition. Sociolegal scholars have long been interested in this approach (legal consciousness, for instance), and many in our fields will find this part tantalizing. [*754]

INVENTING HUMAN RIGHTS begins with a puzzle: human rights’ claims of self-evidence. Self evidence, here, means “requiring no justification,” as in, “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” Except, of course, human rights are not self-evident; the claims themselves arise only in specific times and places. Furthermore, the meaning of who counts as human and deserving of human rights or what constitutes their breach is the stuff of great political conflict and continues to be so more than two hundred years later. This paradox of self-evidence is woven through the following five essays.

The most edifying chapter of Hunt’s book is the first, where she outlines the evidence to support her theory of reading-driven social change. For example, she describes studies of the contents of French speakers’ personal libraries and the dramatic rise in novel publication rates in the latter half of the 1700s, showing both that the reading public was voraciously interested in this new literary form and that the epistolary novel did have an “empathy effect” on readers. I am not a historian and am unqualified to decide whether this evidence meets historians’ standards, but to sociologists or readers with a sociolegal mind this evidence is intriguing – intriguing in the way that makes you wish you too could go ask her sources your own questions about the period. It is infectious. I have more than once lain awake at night wondering how I could find the time to see what other novels and ideas were on the shelves and minds of the 18th century public.

Chapter Two covers the contemporaneous abolition of judicial torture, a remarkable shift in public opinion and morality by any measure. Hunt believes this struggle was a facet of the new empathy which concerned itself in part with a new sanctity of the human body. Hunt takes us through changes in bodily attitudes in public behavior, architecture, portraiture, and novel writing, all describing a profound change in the perception of others’ pain at the time.

Chapters Three and Four are about how the writing of great declarations of rights, the American Bill of Rights and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, came to seem logically and politically necessary. The turmoil in Paris and the colonies produced general statements of principles which very quickly were applied in political debates to the specific positions of those socially inferior to the writers of these declarations – religious minorities (particularly Protestants and Jews in France) and nonwhites. Sadly for human rights’ advocates, the force of nationalism, particularly in Napoleon’s wake, diluted the universality of rights talk, and for two hundred years rights were seen as that which were guaranteed by the state.

The concluding essay argues that the forces of retrenchment, seeking new justifications for their exclusion of the less powerful, necessarily focused on biological difference. In a real sense, then, the forces advocating human rights opened the political space filled, in the end, by Hitler. Only that horror would reinvigorate the international discussion [*755] of rights’ universality, eventually taking form in the international human rights instruments of the United Nations system.

One facet of the book raises my sociological alarm bells, though it does not deserve the level of criticism it received in Joanna Bourke’s review in HARPER’S or will probably receive elsewhere. Hunt takes asides into biologism. She believes there are biological bases for empathy, in particular the kind of empathy that must have underpinned this moral shift in the late 1700s. It is true that this biology is unnecessary for her larger argument, as Bourke notes. There need not be any particular structure in the human brain for the ideas of novels to have a social effect. And Bourke is also right to insist that, logically speaking, there could be a third, unidentified causal vector that drove the changes in morality, law, and for that matter, the writing of epistolary novels. Such is the nature of historical argument, however; one follows the evidence always in the knowledge that some further discovery or excavation may change the scene.

From a different perspective, though, both counterarguments can only be taken so far. Social scientists and humanities scholars should take seriously the new neuroscience, for in the end all human behavior has a biological basis; the question is rather to what degree that basis is deterministic or open-ended. I think Hunt was brave to bring it up at all, given the reaction she surely knew most social scientists, including myself, would instinctively have.

INVENTING HUMAN RIGHTS is published by Norton, and is clearly meant for the general reading public, not just students of law and society. For undergraduate courses in legal history or the origin of legal ideas, it makes an excellent read, particularly the introduction and the first chapter. I would imagine it would be a fine opener for a course in American constitutional law or an undergraduate course in legal history. Graduate students in legal history will find the bibliography helpful.

Bourke, Joanna. 2007. “Sentimental Education: The Invention of Human Rights.” HARPER’S MAGAZINE 89-93 (May 2007). (subscription required).

© Copyright 2007 by the author, Mark J. Harris.