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Psst: here’s my secret wry suspicion. Political theorists are allergic to facts. They feel entitled to firm beliefs—about state-building, modernization, the rise of the bourgeoisie, you name it—because they’ve read some fancy theory books. So a lot of theory reads like a conceptual shell game, with various intoxicating abstractions shuffled about. I’m enough of a vulgar pragmatist to think that theory isn’t what you get when you leave out the facts. So I found Wahrman’s Making of the Modern Self sheer joy, from start to finish. The bottom line first: this is a mustread across the humanities and humanistic social sciences, not something solely of interest to cultural historians of Britain’s long eighteenth century. Wahrman’s thesis—that an “ancien régime of identity” abruptly collapsed in the face of the American Revolution—is juicy enough to make any political theorist smack her lips. But it’s underwritten with a sensational and fascinating array of nitty-gritty facts. (Mischievously, Wahrman sometimes promises, or threatens? the reader that he has plenty more evidence up his sleeve, but confesses, or boasts? that he didn’t think the reader patient enough to endure hearing about it.) And Wahrman shuttles between big picture and tiny detail with consummate confidence. He may be a “historian,” and I may be a “theorist,” but I wish more theorists did what he does. Indeed he presents himself, fairly, as carrying through a project Charles Taylor sketched in his magisterial Sources of the Self but didn’t even attempt to deliver.


Copyright © 2006 The Johns Hopkins University Press. This article first appeared in EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY STUDIES, Volume 40, Issue 1, Fall, 2006, pages 149-56.