‘Euclidean space’ and ‘the Treaty of Westphalia’

I’ve been thinking about how certain phrases which don’t make sense become ingrained in discussions. There is something about the mere invocation of these that indicates (to some) that the invoker doesn’t really know what they are talking about, but (to most) it appears important and insightful.

The two examples that strike me in relation to things I work on are ‘Euclidean space’ and ‘the Treaty of Westphalia’. The first – at best – is a seventeenth century invention that takes Euclid as effectively equivalent to Descartes, and then generalises from his axioms to a description of the material world. Who actually reads Euclid though? I don’t think he says anything like this, and certainly there is no word in the Elements that translates as ‘space’. David Lachterman and Jacob Klein are good on this.

Similarly, ‘Treaty’ (singular) of Westphalia is a bit of a giveaway. It makes it clear that the person speaking of it has never read it, because there is more than one treaty from the peace conference – they were between different parties and said different things. ‘Westphalia’ has become ingrained in state theory and International Relations as some kind of founding moment. There has been a good revisionist literature in recent years – Andreas Osiander, Benno Teschke, etc. – correcting the lazy ways it has been invoked. Yet, I fear there is a danger that we then miss what Westphalia was about, and it was not unimportant. Maybe there is a need for a counter-revisionist account that doesn’t throw everything away in its valid attempt to challenge assumptions.

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