Jan Goldstein Biography

By Stéphane Gerson, New York University
From the Presidential Address Booklet, 2015 AHA Annual Meeting

As a doctoral student in Paris in the mid-1970s, Jan Goldstein came to dread interactions with librarians and archivists. Upon asking for their assistance, she would usually hear that the problems she had identified in their catalogs simply could not be solved or that her research skills were obviously deficient. Such exchanges confounded Goldstein, but they also provided food for thought. In time, she came to realize that these functionaries served a bureaucracy in which an attitude of distant superiority reflected a belief in the grandeur of the French state. For these librarians and archivists, apologizing to American doctoral students for the perceived flaws of their systems would both diminish this state’s aura and shake their own sense of self.

This anecdote says a great deal about Goldstein as a historian and a person. It signals her ability, even as a young scholar, to uncover cultural logics in seemingly mundane encounters. It displays her empathy toward people, whose behavior can only be understood within multiple social and political contexts. It captures the method that she would put to productive use throughout her career: a rigorous blend of the conceptual and the empirical in which intellectual and material forces remain in dynamic relationship with one another. Finally, this anecdote illuminates Goldstein’s major intellectual project. Her topics of study have changed, but not her fundamental concerns: the institutionalization of ideas and the malleability of selfhood in the modern era. In prizewinning books and articles, Goldstein has explored the idea that experience of one’s self, this most personal of sentiments, is always a historical artefact, always the product of time- and place-specific forces that shape what is possible. Combined with her erudition and theoretical sophistication, Goldstein’s curiosity about what she calls the finitude of the human condition—at once constrained and full of possibility—has yielded scholarship of remarkable depth.

Growing up in the Bronx in the 1950s and 1960s, Goldstein observed firsthand how history could both expand and limit horizons. Her grandparents, eastern European Jews who worked in the grocery business and garment industry, fully embraced the American ideal that each generation improved upon the previous one, progressing toward an ever brighter future. For these immigrants, history had begun anew once they arrived on American soil. But, not atypically, the family, at least on her mother’s side, encouraged the sons alone to attend college. Goldstein’s father taught in a junior high school whereas her mother, who had worked as a fashion illustrator before she was married, confined herself to taking care of the house and children. When Goldstein obtained the highest grade point average in her senior class in 1963, she earned the right to graduate as valedictorian—the first girl to do so at the Bronx High School of Science. Instead, she let the honor go to the second-ranked student, a boy, and accepted the lesser role of salutatorian. In the pre-feminist era of the early sixties, this stepping aside struck Goldstein as the decorous thing to do even though—much to her mother’s satisfaction—she also had enough ambition to matriculate at Harvard/Radcliffe (as it was then called) the following fall.

The American educational system furnished Goldstein with lessons of its own. At PS 8 and Bronx Science, she absorbed an egalitarian and meritocratic public school ethos that fostered emulation and promised social mobility. At Harvard, however, where she thrived academically, she nonetheless felt uncomfortable in the company of affluent classmates. While Goldstein had not yet acquired the vocabulary to link this discomfort to class differences, her experience launched an intellectual evolution, from early interests in literary criticism and early modern England (the land of the metaphorical Anglo-Saxon ancestors possessed by every American) to the history of modern continental Europe. The switch from literature to history offered a larger terrain, one beyond great books, on which to investigate ideas; the switch from England to the continent offered an indirect means of reappropriating her Jewish heritage.

In 1969, after two years working in publishing in New York, Goldstein began doctoral studies in history at Columbia. Rather than limiting herself to a single method or faculty mentor, she cast a wide net. From the start, her preferred approach was to combine methodologies and bodies of knowledge in order to devise her own, multi-layered perspective on the past. She thus took courses at the Columbia Psychoanalytic Clinic, studied German epistemology and moral philosophy with the visiting Heidelberg philosopher Dieter Henrich, and tapped Robert Paxton’s expertise in modern French politics, Isser Woloch’s in social history, Fritz Stern’s in German cultural history, and Leonard Krieger’s in the grand and highly abstract narrative of European intellectual history. When it came time to choose a dissertation topic, Krieger urged Goldstein, contrary to his own example, to hitch ideas to institutions and Woloch pushed her toward archival research. “You go down into that muck,” Woloch told her, “and you’ll come up smelling like a rose.” Such words made an impression.

Conceived initially as an analysis of the French response to Freud, Goldstein’s dissertation changed its temporal focus and morphed into a study of the professionalization of French psychiatry in the 19th century. The book to which it led, Console and Classify: The French Psychiatric Profession in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge University Press, 1987; second edition, University of Chicago, 2001), which won the AHA’s Herbert Baxter Adams Prize, has become a classic in French history and the history of the human sciences. It broke new ground by showing with exquisite nuance how a profession took form within a crowded disciplinary and epistemological space and succeeded in imposing a new framework for the understanding of human behavior. Other scholars had written the history of psychiatry in either critical or laudatory tones, viewing it as either a covert justification for arbitrary incarceration or the legacy of humanitarian Enlightenment ideals. Goldstein, in contrast, undertook a complex analysis that melded numerous strands: an intellectual history of psychiatry’s theoretical foundations; a cultural history of categories that moved from psychiatry into criminal law and popular culture; a social history of professionalizations and of the networks and collective identity of psychiatric professionals; an economic history of emergent market forces; and a political history of a bureaucratic state that helped institutionalize human sciences while bending them to its own purposes. A “total history of psychiatry,” as French historian and psychoanalyst Elisabeth Roudinesco called it when reviewing the French translation of Console and Classify in Le Monde and marveling over the fact that an American scholar rather than a French one had produced it, Goldstein’s book showed how the new psychiatric profession secularized pastoral techniques and blended them with scientific procedures—the consolation and classification of the title—to forge a new expertise and form of medical treatment.

Despite the book’s subtitle, the narrative of Console and Classify actually began in the 18th century and crossed the revolutionary divide, thus breaking out of the conventional periodization schemes that guided many historians at the time of its publication. Perhaps as a result, early 19th-century France became Goldstein’s privileged era of study. In Console and Classify, she began exploring the ways that the public culture of the post-revolutionary era ascribed a political coloration to almost everything in its midst, so that, for example, psychiatry, with its roots in the Revolution itself, appeared as an indelibly liberal project. She also began exploring the ways in which French men and women attempted to sort out and channel the diverse forces that had been unleashed during the French Revolution. In this latter respect, her work has illuminated the transition toward what she once termed “an ill-defined ’modernity.’”

But Goldstein had initially gravitated toward France as a case study in psychological culture. If Console and Classify has continued to speak to historians, it is also because the book transcends its topic and era. Its claim that the social process of professionalization and a profession’s body of knowledge mutually shape one another—and hence that this knowledge is not shaped by scientific considerations alone—challenged standard sociological analyses. The book’s argument about the social construction and reception of medical diagnoses, which wax and wane within precise institutional, social, and ideological settings, has influenced scholars of other periods and countries. Indeed in the afterword to the second edition of Console and Classify, Goldstein herself suggested that her approach to the rise of the disease entities monomania and hysteria in 19th-century France might be usually applied to the epidemic proportions reached by attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in the United States in our own era. Likewise, Goldstein’s consideration of “texts” such as psychiatric theory as embedded within multiple contexts has yielded a rich methodological model. This perspective marries internal and external factors, affects and institutions, formal and informal sociabilities, as well as respect for ideas and empathy for historical actors. It takes in the past in its full complexity.

Console and Classify proved important in another way, this time as a fundamental moment in the American reception of Michel Foucault. Goldstein has been one of Foucault’s most sensitive interlocutors within our profession. While conducting her dissertation research in 1973–74, she attended the Collège de France lectures in which Foucault tried out portions of the argument that he would subsequently develop in Discipline and Punish (1975). Foucault’s work spoke to Goldstein because it recovered marginalized domains (such as medicine and psychiatry) and placed them at the heart of the Western historical process. It also provocatively conceptualized the relationship between forms of knowledge and their external environment, and critically defamiliarized the past by presenting notions such as psyche or subjectivity as by-products of technologies of power. Moreover, Foucault’s propositions about the human sciences, disciplinary modes of power, and the French bureaucratic state echoed what Goldstein was discovering in her own research.

Still, Goldstein grasped the challenge that Foucault’s speculative leaps and dearth of human actors posed to the historical profession. Asked to review Discipline and Punish in the Journal of Modern History in 1979, when she was a beginning assistant professor, she took note of the book’s disruptive nature. Historians, she wrote, were confronted “with the special problem of whether and how to assimilate the contributions of Foucault’s singular brand of history into the more conventional practice of the craft.” Another problem surfaced as Foucault grew ever more influential: simplistic readings that reduced his complex conception of disciplinary mechanisms to a crude notion of social control. In Console and Classify as in her later books, Goldstein thus thought with Foucault—and sometimes in creative tension. She interrogated his propositions from a concrete standpoint and used them as heuristic tools rather than dicta. At the same time, she thickened Foucault’s analysis by incorporating historical continuities, gradual transitions, embodied forms of power, and flesh-and-blood actors who made decisions in specific historical fields.

Seeking to extend the dialogue between Foucault and historians, Goldstein organized a major conference in which leading European and American scholars reflected critically on Foucault’s impact upon their discipline. Held in 1991, during the heyday of the linguistic and cultural turns, this “creative encounter” entertained both theoretical and pragmatic ambitions. The speakers grappled with the concepts of discourse, genealogy, and archeology while reflecting on Foucault’s impact upon their own craft. By inviting scholars with diverse interests and relationships to Foucault’s thought, Goldstein eschewed once again dogmatic readings in favor of multiple voices and a wide-ranging exchange of ideas. An important collection, which she edited, resulted: Foucault and the Writing of History (Basil Blackwell, 1994).

This conference took place at the University of Chicago, whose history department Goldstein had joined as a recent PhD in 1978, after a year of teaching at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. When she arrived at Chicago, there was only one other woman, Kathleen Conzen, on the faculty—hardly a situation calculated to put a young, untenured female scholar at ease. But Goldstein, who relished the opportunity to live in a large city again, took instantly to the university’s unapologetic intellectualism and feisty style of engagement with ideas. The very first question posed to her following her Chicago job talk had been, “What is your definition of science?” Goldstein hadn’t relished the question at the time, but, during the ensuing years, she had ample opportunity to delve into such matters as a member of the Chicago Group in the History of the Social Sciences. This faculty reading group, founded by the historian of anthropology George Stocking in 1979, and including such history department faculty as Keith Baker, Peter Novick, and Robert Richards among its members, became her formative intellectual community at Chicago. Through invigorating exchanges, she discovered new methodological approaches, deepened her command of the history of science, explored theoretical questions, and made lasting friendships.

Though Goldstein continued to see herself as a modern European intellectual historian, her publications on the French psychiatric profession were also defining her as a specialist of France. Her relationship to France, which had been accidental and even uneasy at first, at least when it came to bureaucracy, evolved during the 1980s and 1990s. As Goldstein later put it in an essay on the subject, France became “good to think.” The country provided a formal yet unabashedly sensuous culture that could serve as a foil to the American culture that had shaped her. At the same time, the French political ethos, as institutionalized in its welfare state, echoed the egalitarianism of her early public school experience—a set of values to which she still adhered. In 1991, Goldstein and her Chicago colleagues Colin Lucas and Robert Morrissey founded the university’s Workshop in Interdisciplinary Approaches to Modern France, now Workshop in Interdisciplinary Approaches to Modern France and the Francophone World. (William Sewell, newly returned to Chicago that year, soon joined; much later, in 2004, Goldstein and Sewell married.) This biweekly venue for the discussion of pre-circulated papers, which has brought together historians, literary critics, sociologists, anthropologists, and art historians, reflects Goldstein’s long-standing commitment to multi-disciplinary exchanges. It quickly became one of the country’s leading forums devoted to its subject. In 2007–08, Goldstein extended its spirit to Chicago’s Center in Paris, founded only a few years before, by serving as its academic director and the first historian to occupy that post.

France also continued to beckon as a font of rich intellectual problems. Goldstein’s following book, The Post-Revolutionary Self: Politics and Psyche in France, 1750–1850 (Harvard University Press, 2005), which won the David Pinkney Prize of the Society for French Historical Studies, explored the mutability and shifting cultural salience of what passes for a self by tracing the emergence of the unified moi as a psychological category, an issue for public discussion, a social marker, and a political instrument in modern France. Departing from exclusively philosophical approaches, Goldstein argued for a significant historical shift following the demise of the Old Regime corporate order: the waning of a weak, fragmented conception of the self grounded in environmental input in accordance with the sensationalist psychology of Locke and Condillac; the emergence of a somewhat marginal phrenological conception that distributed aspects of the self among brain organs; and the dissemination through the system of higher education of a so-called eclectic conception in which a stable, immaterial self actively molded the external world while embracing conventional values.

In methodological terms, The Post-Revolutionary Self constituted a model analysis of the connections between scientific and philosophical knowledge, politics, and everyday life. Navigating once again between texts and contexts, Goldstein’s analytical framework brought together philosophical systems, rhetorical moves, and modes of institutionalization within state-sponsored schools and universities. In historiographical and conceptual terms, the book probed the ways in which historical actors whom posterity has not treated generously, especially the derivative thinker Victor Cousin, carried out philosophical and ideological programs with long-lasting consequences. The book made an important case for Cousin’s philosophy of mind as a technology of the self that “both created and constrained its recipients” by requiring conformity to fixed principles. The eclectic conception of the self further bolstered a social order that Goldstein (controversially) called bourgeois and that was characterized by a principled exclusion of women and workers from the elite ranks of “selved” citizens. The impact of this conception could still be felt decades later, in the Third Republic’s gender policies as well as in the tepid French response to Freud’s theories. Ultimately, The Post-Revolutionary Self invited readers to consider the coexistence at any given time of plural Western conceptions of selfhood.

In her next book, Goldstein tackled a different question: What can we understand about the experiences, not only of 19th-century psychiatrists, but also of their patients, especially the illiterate ones? In Console and Classify, she had written that patients, these “shadowy figures,” deserved a study of their own. Hysteria Complicated by Ecstasy: The Case of Nanette Leroux (Princeton University Press, 2010) marked an important step in that direction. This micro history began with Goldstein’s discovery of a case study written by two early 19th-century doctors, a provincial one who actually treated the patient, and a Parisian one to whom he consigned his notes and who, without firsthand knowledge of the patient, composed the manuscript. Through painstaking detective work, Goldstein made this often cryptic text come alive at the intersection of varied domains, from the regional politics of Savoy and a nascent consumerism to spa culture and spectacles of healing. In one respect, the book contributed to the early history of the case study as a genre. In another respect, it served as a methodological primer on how a historian makes sense of a cobbled-together text of initially uncertain provenance. The doctors’ response to a peasant girl who exhibited nervous symptoms after an unspecified sexual assault revealed a medical world of the 1820s in which sexuality had not yet become an object of scientific knowledge capable of explaining a wide array of human behavior. In this respect, the book’s findings supported Foucault’s rough dating of what he termed “the invention of sexuality.”

While Hysteria Complicated by Ecstasy engaged with Foucault’s History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, the book did not rest on the Foucauldian assumption that human beings are fixed in place by disciplinary techniques. Rather, Goldstein fleshed out the peasant girl Nanette as a young woman who overflowed the boundaries of the case history—she parodied her doctor’s healing techniques, for example—as well as the social and gendered constraints of her changing world. Nanette’s culture curtailed her horizons and sense of self, but it also endowed her with enough resources to express herself and, in an Italian-ruled region still marked by its earlier involvement in the French Revolution, strive for some autonomy. Drawing on Freud, Goldstein proposed that, even in rural Savoy, a young peasant girl could manipulate symbols (a watch, a goat grazing on newly privatized land) to give voice to a conflicted stance regarding traditional female roles. Goldstein’s argument was too rich to end with a neat resolution. Just as the seemingly cured, newly married, and pregnant Nanette suffered a relapse and continued to struggle with illness at the end of the manuscript, so the historian stood on the cusp. Though Goldstein had recovered a willful human being who could easily have vanished from memory, she refused to reduce Nanette’s complex story to a single interpretation. This is why Hysteria Complicated by Ecstasy includes Goldstein’s translation of the full case study. The polyphonic book thus ends with another promise of dialogue, this time between author and readers.

As a teacher, Goldstein has similarly taught two generations of students at Chicago to organize their thoughts rigorously and to engage in intellectual give-and-take. In the classroom, she sets the bar high and at the same time helps students make sense of texts and frame arguments that can withstand challenges. Her ability to provide structure and support, convey passion for her craft, and create a space for discussion has been recognized by a University of Chicago Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching.

As a doctoral adviser, Goldstein is both exacting and present, that is, attuned to the specific needs of her students. One sometimes speaks of styles when it comes to advisers, but this casual term fails to capture Goldstein’s commitment to her students’ entire selves. She has long recognized that research is rooted within the scholar’s personal trajectory. Figuring out the connection between one’s self and one’s research questions is not always easy, certainly not for students in their mid-20s, but it is indispensable. “Why did you choose to work on this particular topic?” Goldstein once asked, point-blank, a student who was struggling with his prospectus. Her question told this student that his research would only come to fruition once he was fully part of the project. It led to a conversation that, even at that delicate moment, legitimated this student as a scholar. And it later begat a thinking process that enabled the said student to clarify his project.

Goldstein has always refused to hand out dissertation topics; she does not deem it respectful of her students to put her stamp on them. More than 25 doctoral students have worked under her supervision—exploring various facets of modern European history, medical history, and the history of the human sciences—and Goldstein has encouraged them all to follow their curiosity and develop their own voices. Some of these students have investigated forms of knowledge, such as domestic medicine, pedagogy, nutrition science, anthropology, political economy, and labor management. Others have explored topics ranging from the aftermath of the Terror to the rise of the French welfare state, from rural Social Catholicism to forms of Jewish solidarity, from the culture of credit to the emergence of a literary marketplace, from notions of taste to intellectual responses to the Algerian War.

As co-editor of the Journal of Modern History since 1996, Goldstein has likewise helped countless historians convey their findings and arguments with rigor and the right audacity. Under her watch, the JMH has maintained its standards of excellence, represented all facets of early and late modern European history, and made room for innovative ways of writing about the past. The new rubric “Contemporary Issues in Historical Perspective” now gives authors the freedom to engage in more speculative play while relating the past to current affairs. It is, however, the collaborative nature of editorial work, so precious in a profession that can prove solitary, that Goldstein has found most rewarding. Authors submit manuscripts that sometimes represent years of effort; outside readers then give generously of their time to prepared detailed comments; Goldstein’s task, as she understands it, is to work with both to produce better scholarship. Anyone who has participated in this process knows that the letters in which Goldstein distills outside reports and delivers her own opinion of what needs to be done are models of precision, fairness, and sensitivity. She somehow finds words that, regardless of the journal’s final decision, authors are able to take in.

This is a far cry from the librarians and archivists whom Goldstein encountered in Paris in the 1970s. Few of them were capable of taking in what a young graduate student had to say. (Happily, things have improved since then at the Archives Nationales and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.) Goldstein, in contrast, has devoted her career to taking in and engaging with what her historical subjects and her colleagues, students, and fellow scholars have to say. Doing so has been an intellectual necessity and also a matter of personal ethics and political conviction. This same ethics, these same convictions recently led Goldstein, as president of the AHA, to address work and life issues that affect distinct constituencies. One of her concerns is the early professionalization that can make doctoral students overly prudent and narrowly focused. Another revolves around the taboos that close off conversations about academic retirement. This latter issue, she suggested, might even be reconceptualized as “a problem of intergenerational solidarity.”

One is tempted to connect Goldstein’s views on retirement to the other solidarities that have shaped and moved her over the years: the formative egalitarian spirit of New York City public schools, the intellectual and social camaraderie she found among scholars of France and the human sciences, collaborative editorial work at the JMH, and the sense of communal obligation that speaks to her with such force in the French Republican tradition. Although biographical essays such as this one necessarily privilege the past, they can offer hints about the future as well. In Goldstein’s case, this includes a new research project on moral thinking as it applies to racial theory in 19th-century France. While it is too early to glimpse its final shape, this book will surely bear the imprint of what has never wavered in Jan Goldstein’s life and career: her commitments to unfettered curiosity, vigorous intellectual exchange, the history of finite yet capacious human beings, and solidarity in all of its forms.


Review of Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, by Michel Foucault. Journal of Modern History 51, no. 1 (1979): 116–18.

“Foucault among the Sociologists: The ’Disciplines’ and the History of the Professions.” History and Theory 23, no. 2 (1984): 170–92.

Console and Classify: The French Psychiatric Profession in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Second American edition with new afterword, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Nineteenth-Century Europe: Liberalism and Its Critics, vol. 8 of Readings in Western Civilization. Co-editor (with John Boyer). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Twentieth-Century Europe, vol. 9 of Readings in Western Civilization. Co-editor (with John Boyer). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

“Framing Discipline with Law: Problems and Promises of the Liberal State.” American Historical Review 98, no. 2 (April 1993): 364–75.

Foucault and the Writing of History. Editor and Contributor. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1994.

“Mutations of the Self in Old Regime and Post-Revolutionary France: From Âme to Moi to Le Moi.” In Biographies of Scientific Objects, edited by Lorraine Daston, 86–116. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

“The Future of French History in the United States: Unapocalyptic Thoughts for the New Millennium.” French Historical Studies 24, no. 1 (Winter 2001): 1–10.

“Of Marksmanship and Marx: Reflections on the Linguistic Construction of Class in Some Recent Historical Scholarship.” Modern Intellectual History 2, no. 1 (2005): 87–107.

The Post-Revolutionary Self: Politics and Psyche in France, 1750-1850. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005.

“Europe Without Personal Angst.” In Why France? American Historians Reflect on an Enduring Fascination, edited by Laura Lee Downs and Stéphane Gerson, 123–35. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007.

Hysteria Complicated by Ecstasy: The Case of Nanette Leroux. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010.

Jan Goldstein, AHA President-Elect for 2013.” Perspectives on History 51, no. 1 (January 2013).

“Neutralizing Freud: The Lycée Philosophy Class and the Problem of the Reception of Psychoanalysis in France.” Critical Inquiry 40, no. 1 (Autumn 2013): 40–82.

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