by Debapriya Sarkar

My focus on “utopian” as a case study for the scope of critical semantics might at first seem surprising, since the project Roland Greene outlines in Five Words: Critical Semantics in the Age of Shakespeare and Cervantes rejects “canonical” terms to focus on “words of an everyday character” (14, 13).[1] These words, Greene demonstrates, “are not the most ordinary,” but despite primarily being “important within local fields of knowledge such as rhetoric or political theory, [they] tend to appear in general discourse as though they were ordinary, their capaciousness taken for granted” (13, 14). As we may recognize, the word “utopian” fits in only awkwardly within this framework. Along with its famous lexical neighbor, “utopia”, it has certainly not escaped the attention of readers, both early modern and modern. Yet, this “not the most ordinary” of words does seem to be—or at least become—of “everyday character” within the century it was coined; unlike the original examples of Five Words (language, blood, world, invention, and resistance), the term “utopian” originated in the sixteenth century itself. It thus seems primed to mobilize the project of critical semantics in new ways, as it provides us a glimpse of the extravagant capacities of recent words that are (in theory) free from, or at least less burdened by, past linguistic associations.

The term “utopian” originally denoted specific things: as a noun, it referred to inhabitants of Thomas More’s Utopia (“the utopians”), and as an adjective it described the nature of this fictional place (“the utopian commonwealth”). But over the course of the century it became ubiquitous in different forms of writing and came to refer to varied entities—including kinds of people, cognitive formulations, and imaginative states. Its liminal status—simultaneously “everyday” and “canonical”—enables us to test the bounds of which words might escape our purview if we do not focus on their “ordinary” nature despite their canonicity in our critical discourse. In this essay, I explore how “utopian” was an extraordinary word that became ordinary, a particular term that became general, and a reference to a physical place that became an idea. As such, the notion of “change” that lies at the “foreground of [Greene’s] argument” (8) about critical semantics is vital to understanding the capaciousness of “utopian”, making it ideal to think with about how words at the threshold of canonicity and ordinariness can expand the scope of the project.

I’ll begin by focusing on the ways in which “utopian” aligns with the project of critical semantics, which explores “words that early modern people not only thought through but lived with” (5). We see such vibrancy in the usages of “utopian”. Unsurprisingly, it is an adjective that describes particulars of Thomas More’s text. Ralph Robinson’s 1551 translation discusses “This boke of ye vtopian commen wealth,” and in the second edition of the translation (1556), the “Printer to the Reader” mentions “The Vtopian Alphabete.”[2] But its usage became much more expansive within a few decades, as writers across varied disciplines applied it in diverse contexts. Robert Burton writes in Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) that “Vtopian parity is a thing to be wished for rather then effected,” and John Milton declares in his challenge to censorship and licensing, Areopagitica (1644), that “to sequester out of the world into Atlantick and Eutopian polities which never can be drawn into use, will not mend our condition; but to ordain wisely as in this world of evill, in the midd’st whereof God hath plac’t us unavoidably.”[3] These examples signal the word’s migration from its initial reference to a particular place to a general idea—an idea that often carried negative connotations of impracticality and impossibility, whether in an unachievable “Vtopian parity” or as inaccessible “Eutopian polities.” Even when not used negatively, it denoted impractical, idealistic, or unrealistic beliefs about society’s perfectibility. For example, John Donne uses it to describe purity or inexperience (“To Sir Henry Wotton” (1633)):

if men, which in these places live,
Durst look in themselves, and themselves retrieve,
They would like strangers greet themselves, seeing then
Utopian youth grown old Italian (43-46).

And in another instance, Samuel Purchas uses it to describe a general ideal place (Purchas his Pilgrimage (1613)): “no Vtopian State comparable to theirs.”[4] These examples demonstrate how, losing its rootedness in the specific island of Utopia, “utopian” becomes omnipresent as a concept of unreality, impracticality, and even impossibility for a wide range of early modern writers.  

These qualities also hint at the word’s fit with another goal of critical semantics: to consider terms that run across languages, eras, disciplines, and genres. “Utopian” is definitionally transcultural. Derived from the Greek word ou-topos (no-place), but also punning on eu-topos (good place), the nonexistence or the ideality of the word is graspable only in translation. These dual cross-linguistic connotations drive the humor in More’s Utopia on the topic of the perfect island’s unlocatability, as the author’s humanist interlocutors across Europe construct elaborate paratextual materials to bolster the idea that this place actually exists. But the question of existence—or we might say the certainty of its non-existence—was not a laughing matter; it becomes a serious point of distinction for travel-writers who established the realities of their discovered realms by distinguishing them from Utopia’s fictionality and its no-placeness. As Humphrey Gilbert writes in Discourse of a Discoverie for a New Passage to Cataia (1576), “YOV might iustly haue charged mee with an vnsetled head if I had at any time taken in hand, to discouer Vtopia, or any countrey fained by imagination: But Cataia is none such, it is a countrey, well knowen to be described and set foorth by all moderne Geographers.[5] Gilbert reverses the central tenet of More’s text, relying on the idea that his readers are universally in agreement about Utopia being a “countrey fained by imagination.”

“Utopian” thus crosses disciplines and genres, like the five words that Greene uses to demonstrate the work of critical semantics. It spills over from fiction to travel-writing to political tracts, and even to proto-scientific ventures. For instance, in England, Samuel Hartlib’s network of reformers relied on utopian models to propose improvements in agriculture, education, and natural philosophy. The Hartlib circle’s ideas reflect the term’s aspirational quality (its ideality, we might say), rather than its impracticality. Here, “utopian” refers to achievable improvements. Contrary to the dismissive tone adopted by travel writers, the word signifies future opportunities for Hartlibian reformers who use it to outline visions or plans of proposed projects in England, Ireland, and even the New World.[6] Perhaps their embrace of the ethos of utopian projects underscores the extreme oscillations between reality and fiction that are latent in the term itself—rather than stress the differences between the two, Hartlibians suggest that the conditions they observe in their extant societies can be molded into the utopian domains that so far only exist in their imaginations. In this formulation, utopian endeavors seem to represent not a difference in kind from actuality but a difference in degree. Reaching the fictional ideal becomes the goal in the actual world, and it is only a matter of time before the two realms converge.

These sixteenth- and seventeenth-century applications of the term already gesture to how “utopian” aligns with perhaps what we might consider the key methodological feature of critical semantics. The project “name[s] words” not only in terms of “semantic integers that one finds in a dictionary” but also through the “concepts that shadow them” (3-4). It looks for “models for semantic change” (8) to track words through “conceits…[that] are native to the long sixteenth century” (10). It can be productive to consider the ambivalent significations of “utopian” under this rubric. I propose the conceptual “shadow” of “utopian” is “hypothetical,” another term with a rich scope in early modern discourse. The word “hypothetical” was associated with conjecture, speculation, even fanciful suppositions, and its usage ranged across disciplines, from astronomy (as we see in the writings of Copernicus) to logic (see, for instance, Abraham Fraunce Lawiers Logike, 1588) to experimental philosophy (see Robert Hooke’s Micrographia, 1665).[7] Long sixteenth-century thinkers commonly understood the term as suppositional, or as “something supposed or assumed to be true without proof or conclusive evidence.”[8] In an era of increasing attention to empiricism and experiment, this tie with supposition could have negative connotations, and a hypothesis could be dismissed as “A groundless or insufficiently grounded supposition”—a dismissal starkly similar to those leveled against utopian endeavors.[9] I wish to suggest that the term “utopian” offers early moderns a hypothetical way of approaching the world: as conjectures, speculations, and suppositions about what could be. In other words, the idea of the “hypothetical” did not only designate for early modern thinkers a method for interpreting the world. It also captured a state of being that was repeatedly ascribed to utopian realms: as-yet-unproved ways of existence that could be dismissed as impractical goals or celebrated as aspirational ideals. Thus, if we fully connect the conceit to our word of choice, we could say that utopian embodies a hypothetical ontology; it emerged as a concept of non-existence. The resonances between the flexible, cross-disciplinary applications of “hypothetical” and “utopian” illuminate why, for early modern thinkers, the latter term could transform from an extra-ordinary word associated with a specific fictional place into an idea or a notion of speculation, conjecture, or idealization. Such varied usages of “utopian” solidify its status as a capacious concept that structured crucial intellectual and philosophical questions of the time on epistemology, truth, and ontology.

As we can observe, “utopian” is a perfect candidate in our search of new transcultural keywords. It is the ambivalence of the term—like that of the original Five Words—that animates its varied applications. The word bolsters the idea that conceits drive the work of critical semantics. It also underscores that if Five Words outlines a “keywords” project, its objects of study are conceptual keywords. But how might such new keywords function not only as mere examples of critical semantics as it exists, but also as intellectual instruments that put pressure on—and can thereby broaden—the project’s central claims and methodology? Greene already embeds such a question in the “Introduction” to Five Words. He concludes this chapter by highlighting the problem of method: “I really do not know that the project of Five Words can be done” (14). This uncertainty about outcome is of course, an invitation, not only to test this “resolutely elemental approach” that operates at the “cellular level” (3) (by thinking through words rather than through historical events, authors, or works), but also to examine the scope of the project itself. In this spirit, I’ll conclude by gesturing to the ways in which “utopian” not only underscores the conceptual (conceit-based, perhaps metaphorical) foundation of critical semantics, but also how it intimates the project’s expandability.

Like the initial Five Words, “utopian” functions as a “vesse[l] of change” (173): even though it emerges from a work of fiction, and even though it sometimes operates as a metonym for fictionality itself, its greater efficacy lies in continually putting pressure on the bounds between reality and fiction. For our purposes, “utopian” highlights that the changes we trace through “shadow” concepts or “conceits,” are latent in keywords themselves. In other words, we must think of “utopian” as a word-concept, rather than treating the two parts of this hyphenated term as separate or suggesting that one precedes the other. I say this because it is utopian’s cross-linguistic playfulness with ideas—and specifically with the duality of no-placeness and ideality—that motivates users to test, expand, even mock the bounds between truth and falsehood. Notions of conjecture, unfeasibility, and ideals undergird the word. It is by applying the central methodological feature of critical semantics that we fully grasp this complexity; its conceptual shadow (of hypothetical) enables us to fully recognize how “utopian” becomes an ordinary word that circulates, and finally comes to stand in for, these underlying notions. This brief exploration also reveals that the term—ubiquitous in twenty-first century discourse as a referent to a generic ideal society or idea, and as a word that has been completely stripped from its particular links to More’s humanist text and context—was shifting gears from the particular to the general almost immediately after its invention. Users in the long sixteenth century were deploying it just as extravagantly and loosely (or generously, we might say) as we do today. Thus, as “utopian”, within a century of its conception, comes to refer to ideas as well as people and places, and as it oscillates between noun and adjective, it raises questions that take us beyond those raised by the original Five Words: How do words become ordinary? How (and how soon) does the shift between particulars and generals occur? How might adjectives, or for that matter other grammatical constructs, reshape a project that originally focused on nouns? What would it mean to expand critical semantics beyond the long sixteenth century (the temporal limitation set in Five Words), given that there might be similarities in early modern and modern evolutions of certain terms? Such questions suggest that it is not only movements across languages, disciplines, and genres, but also change across time that is vital to the project. They also highlight how the processes of transformation, rather than final meanings, are important in understanding these keywords. Ultimately, as we turn to conceits to uncover ideas underlying a word, and as we recognize the ways in which early moderns “lived with” diverse undertones of a word that now seems “canonical” to us, we also discover how transcultural keywords were themselves concepts in potentia.  

I would like to thank Tara Lyons and Vin Nardizzi for their comments on earlier versions of this essay.

[1] Roland Greene, Five Words: Critical Semantics in the Age of Shakespeare and Cervantes (Chicago: Chicago UP, 2013). All citations to the book are by page number.

[2] Thomas More, A fruteful, and pleasaunt worke of the beste state of a publyque weale, and of the newe yle called Vtopia. Trans. Ralph Robinson (London, 1551); Thomas More, A frutefull pleasaunt, [and] wittie worke, of the beste state of a publique weale, and of the newe yle, called Vtopia, trans. Ralph Robinson, 2nd ed. (London, 1556).

[3] Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy (Oxford, 1621); John Milton, Areopagitica; a speech of Mr. John Milton for the liberty of vnlicens'd printing, to the Parlament of England (London, 1644).

[4] John Donne, Poems (London, 1633); Samuel Purchas, Purchas his pilgrimage; or, Relations of the world and the religions obserued in all ages and places discouered (London, 1613).

[5] Humphrey Gilbert, Discourse of a Discoverie for a New Passage to Cataia (London, 1576).

[6] For the classic study on this topic, see Charles Webster, The Great Instauration: Science, Medicine, and Reform, 1626-1660 2nd ed. (New York: Peter Lang, 2002). I am referring to the ethos and language of texts such as Gabriel Platt’s A Description of the Famous Kingdome of Macaria (1641) and William Petty’s The advice of W.P. to Mr. Samuel Hartlib. For the advancement of some particular parts of learning (1648).  

[7] See for instance, Andreas Osiander’s anonymous Preface to Nicolaus Copernicus, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (Nuremberg, 1543). Osiander declares the heliocentric theory to be a hypothesis that was used for calculations, or to “save appearances,” rather than demonstrating actual conditions of the universe. Abraham Fraunce, in The lawiers logike (London, 1588) writes “The woorde, hypotheticall, which is héere commonly vsed, is neither proper nor fit for this purpose. For, in absolute copulatiue and discretiue axiomes, there is no ὑπόθεσις, no condition at all.” In Micrographia (London, 1665), Robert Hooke discusses “The hypothetical height and density of the Air.”

[8] In this section, I draw on the OED definitions of the related terms “hypothesis” and “hypothetical” to trace their varied meanings in the early modern period. See “hypothetical, adj. and n.”. OED Online. June 2017. Oxford University Press. (accessed December 10, 2017) and “hypothesis, n.”. OED Online. March 2018. Oxford University Press. (accessed May 29, 2018).

[9] See “hypothesis, n.”. OED Online. March 2018. Oxford University Press. (accessed May 29, 2018).

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