Sophia Rosenfeld

Sophia Rosenfeld

Fellow: Awarded 2013
Field of Study: Intellectual and Cultural History

Competition: US & Canada

University of Virginia

Sophia Rosenfeld is an intellectual and cultural historian at the University of Virginia.  Her work focuses largely on the eighteenth century and the long afterlife of Enlightenment and revolutionary modes of thought.  She is especially interested in revealing the histories behind the basic (and often little noticed) assumptions and attitudes that structure contemporary life, particularly in the realm of politics.

Her first book, A Revolution in Language: The Problem of Signs in Late Eighteenth-Century France (Stanford, 2001), considered the impact of Enlightenment conceptions of communication, nonverbal as well as verbal, on the conflict of the French Revolution. It also inaugurated her ongoing project of bringing the study of the history of epistemology together with the study of politics.  Her second book, Common Sense: A Political History (Harvard, 2011)—which won both the 2012 Mark Lynton History Prize given by the Columbia School of Journalism and Nieman Foundation and the 2011 Society of Historians of the Early American Republic Book Prize and which will soon appear in both Korean and French translations, extended this enterprise across a multinational canvas and several centuries.  A study of a category of knowledge that would seem to transcend historicization, Common Sense is also an essay in what she calls “philosophical history,” or the use of empirical inquiry into the past to probe a contemporary philosophical question, in this case about the nature of democracy.  In addition, Rosenfeld has written about topics ranging from the history of the senses and the emotions to changing notions of personal identity and free speech, and her articles have been published in many leading journals, including the Journal of Modern History, the American Historical Review, French Historical Studies, the William and Mary Quarterly, and National Identities.  Her writing on contemporary politics in historical perspective has also appeared in the Nation, the New York Times, and the Washington Post.

Rosenfeld is currently Professor of History at the University of Virginia.  She teaches courses on the Age of Revolutions, the global history of early modern Europe, eighteenth-century thought, the history of human rights, and historical theory and methods.  She also directs a college-wide program of undergraduate seminars that cross the humanities, social sciences, and natural and physical sciences and stress pedagogical experimentation.  She received her A.B. summa cum laude from Princeton University in 1988 and her Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1996. Since then, her work has been supported by a postdoctoral fellowship at the Remarque Institute at NYU, a Mellon Foundation New Directions Fellowship, and an ACLS Burckhardt Fellowship, among other grants.  She has also been a visiting professor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris and at the University of Virginia School of Law.  Most recently, in addition to serving on several editorial boards, she has become one the co-editors of the journal Modern Intellectual History. 

During her Guggenheim fellowship year, Rosenfeld plans to work on her new book project, “The Choices We Make: The Roots of Modern Freedom.”  The main premise behind this project is that maximizing choice has become virtually synonymous with promoting freedom in human-rights struggles and in modern consumer culture alike—but we have rarely asked how this association developed or why. “The Choices We Make” will explore how, starting in the seventeenth century, people in the West learned to assert their preferences in domains ranging from political candidates, to beliefs, to what to eat for dinner, while also constantly looking for mechanisms to limit their menu of options.  It is intended, in keeping with Rosenfeld’s investment in “philosophical history,” to open up a new perspective on the psychological and social consequences of our current obsession with choice.


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