The approach proposed by the project differs from earlier ones in three major aspects. First, it tries to encompass more than the classical major political thinkers, in order to establish contexts and currents, to locate innovation, ‘secondary’ trends, and so forth. Studies focusing only on major intellectuals, such as Kınalızade Ali Çelebi, Koçi Bey or Mustafa Na’ima, show the history of political theory as a series of great minds that either recapitulated the ideas of their predecessors -be they fellow Ottomans or Persian- or departed from them. On the contrary, a research encompassing also minor writers could show the general trends of each period, and consequently the degree to which a ‘major’ thinker used common mental tools or innovative ideas; besides, it can track ideas that were current among lesser-known authors, but maybe were not propagated by the major ones. Innovation, as well as tradition, can also be a collective effort, according to the dynamics of different groups in a society and the political and ideological climate of an era. This can be shown only by extending the field of research to a vast scope of authors and works, rather than a few geniuses.
Second, the project aims to use, along with traditional political treatises, other kinds of sources that might contain pieces of political theory or advice. Such sources include moralist treatises, historiographical works, copybooks of protocol and official correspondence, administration manuals, literary works, treatises on theology and kalam, collections of legal opinions (fetvas), and so forth. This would help to locate political thoughts and ideas which circulated within a broader context of both theory and practice, as well as to extend the field of political ideas to a wider range of intellectual and administrative groups of the ruling elite.
Third, the project is not limited to a simple enumeration of works and ideas. A collateral, so to speak, task is to explore some recurrent themes and their development throughout the period under study. Some scholars have, for instance, investigated the development and transformation of notions such as justice, “world order” or state. The project will propose a study of themes and notions, such as: the virtues demanded from the ruler; the place of the Sultan with regard to the state apparatus; the ideal structure of society; the views towards social mobility; the concept of old laws (kanun-ı kadim) vs. innovation (bid’a); the place of religion; the shifting equilibrium with Western Europe; and so forth. In this way, it will explore the political vocabulary of the Ottoman theorists and state, and conduct a comparative study of the political treatises, heretofore limited to short periods or only a few authors. As a conclusion, some of these fundamental concepts will be studied in the form proposed by the German “conceptual history” or Begriffsgeschichte.
The research hypothesis underlying the approach proposed is that a mere enumeration of theories and treatises in chronological order would contribute little to our understanding of the development of Ottoman political ideas. Instead, the project will be orientated toward an identification of ideological currents, many of them coexisted in the same periods or even in the same socio-political milieus. Such currents are the moralist philosophy based in al-Farabi’s or Nasireddin Tusi’s neoplatonic and Aristotelian tradition, the “Golden Era” theory according to which the Ottoman Empire should revert to an imagined steadiness of old institutions, the “fundamentalist” trend focusing in the Sharia prescripts, or the “Ibn Khaldunian” theories that sought to justify innovation. A careful identification of textual interrelations, of selections of sources and interpretations, as well as the cultural and political milieu of each individual author, will show in clarity these currents and the place of each in the history of Ottoman ideas and politics.
Thus, the project proposes an innovative approach in many ways, not the least of them being that it will produce a synthetic work which is lacking today.