On Uses of the ‘Third’ in Historical Studies

Ralph Weber

The international conference “Tertium datur: The Third in History 1450–1850” (June 21–23, 2012, organized by Francisca Loetz, Bernd Roeck, Marcus Sandl, and Sven Trakulhun, all of the History Department at the University of Zurich) explored ‘the third’ in history in an attempt to move beyond prevailing dualistic models in the discipline and to break ground for models able to handle paradoxical and hybrid historical relations. The illustrious group of assembled scholars approached the topic from a variety of perspectives structured along five panels. Throughout, the third was addressed in rather different ways (as triads, tertiality, triangles, or figures of the third), raising the question of whether there emerged at the conference a sense of the third that is clear enough to sustain the talk about the third in historical studies.

One way the conference addressed the third referred to its use in distinction (or in comparison), i.e. as a third that logically or otherwise grounds talk about two, as, for example, some common concept of Renaissance enables talk of different European and Bengali “Renaissances.” A rather different yet currently fashionable approach referred to a third invoked for the breaking up of binaries, dualisms or dichotomies – most properly referencing the tertium datur in the conference title. Another sort of in-betweenness referred to figures of the third such as the translator, the trickster, the envoy, the parasite, the prophet, the missionary, or anything that works as a medium or mediator. An intriguing example is the ransomer, the third party intermediary who facilitated the re-purchase of captives to their families in the early modern Christian-Muslim Mediterranean world. For all the attractiveness of these figures, conference participants warned that excessive emphasis might backfire and contribute to reifying ‘the two’ between which these figures are said to stand as a third. Finally, there was a purely metaphorical way of talking about the third, which was used to tie it to all kinds of topics – although it was often far from clear why the number three was invoked at all and what exactly it was that sustained the metaphor. The easiness with which a number is tied to all kinds of topics and theoretical tools may of course lead to the problem of seeing threes everywhere (much like the proverbial trees), which either means to hypostasize the three metaphysically – which nobody at the conference tried to do – or to reduce drastically the added analytical value of talk about the third.

The sense that eventually emerged at the conference was perhaps that not everything is a third, but everything can be looked at as a third of something. Although increased attention on the third (in all or some of the above-mentioned variety) probably will not bring about a paradigm change in the discipline any time soon, it may certainly prove helpful in raising attention on hitherto understudied actor groups or phenomena, in re-adjusting ossified research perspectives (whether evolution or revolution, nature or culture, etc.) and in serving as one methodological tool among others employed by the self-aware and self-critical historian.

(Asia & Europe Bulletin, 2/2013, p. 16)