Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Lewis P. Simpson


This study traces Henry Adams's evolution from an enlightenment historian to a prescient postmodern theorist, and explores how he came to regard his own intellectual history as paradigmatic of the arc of subjectivity in the West from the Middle Ages to Nietzsche and Bergson. Adams was a self-conscious philosophical nominalist, and he believed that his radical doubts about the capacity of language for embodying meaning had their origin in medieval nominalism. Adams found the seeds of modernity and the problem of subjectivity which were the focus of his own musings on the nature of the self and history in Abelard and Ockham. Nominalism was, in Adams's view, the only tenable position for the self-imprisoned subject of modernity. Adams's view of language and its powers also anticipates the view of the relationship between self and identity, and self and world in later thinkers like Louis Althusser and Gilles Deleuze. Partly because of his conception of the de-centered Word, the act of writing enjoys a special status in Adams's work. Adams's eloquent and rapacious "I" consumes all of universal history. His "I" is a self-creating and fluid entity constituted within a verbal matrix. Adams is thus not only Adams, but all of his models from Augustine to Petrarch to Bergson. Adams believed that the model of world grounded in consciousness was one that condemned the perceiving subject to a terrible isolation; his final efforts at self-representation in Mt. St. Michel and Chartres and The Education of Henry Adams, and in the historical essays that he claimed were addenda to his autobiography are efforts to murder the personal self in order to escape it. Adams's infamous claims that biography was murder and autobiography suicide become explicable in this context. Adams's many versions of self in textual form--whether his personae appear as biographical or historical characters or as figures in his parodic version of autobiography--are all founded in written texts which become the ground of his communication with the world.