U.S. Intellectual History Blog

John C. Greene’s "Objectives and Methods in Intellectual History:" A 50-Year Retrospective Review And Comment

[USIH exclusive content by Tim Lacy]

In June 1957 the Mississippi Valley Historical Review published John C. Greene’s article, “Objectives and Methods in Intellectual History” (p. 58-74). The article served as a response to two articles by John Higham published earlier in the decade: an April 1951 piece in the American Historical Review titled “The Rise of American Intellectual History,” and a June 1954 essay in the Journal of the History of Ideas titled “Intellectual History and Its Neighbors.” Quotes from Higham’s essays bookend Greene’s article. At some point I hope to review Higham’s articles, but the symmetry between rethinking Greene’s practical advice and this web log’s creation is too good to pass up.

What makes Greene’s article special? For one, it received pre-publication commentary and criticism from a number of important intellectual historians, as well as figures from the field at large. Reviewers included Merle Curti, Henry F. May, George L. Mosse, Arthur Bestor, Charles G. Sellers, and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr. (p. 59). The article has also been acknowledged as a sign post for present-day intellectual historians.

So what did Greene determine were the “objectives” and “methods” of the field? For him both were wrapped up in the act of defining the discipline of intellectual history. With that, the field’s goals, according to Greene, very much corresponded to what historiographers have called “mind studies.” Greene underscored this when he wrote that “the primary function of the intellectual historian is to delineate the presuppositions of thought in given historical epochs and to explain the changes which those presuppositions undergo from epoch to epoch.” He continues: “It is the peculiar province of the intellectual historian to search for and describe those most general ideas, or patterns of ideas, which inform the thought of an age, define its intellectual problems, and indicate the direction in which solutions are to be sought” (p. 59). If these statements strike today’s historians as somewhat over ambitious, it is because intellectual historians – from the 1977 Wingspread conference forward – successfully chastened the field to be more humble.

Greene persists in his admonition for intellectual historians to find larger patterns of thought throughout his piece. In fact, two major topics in the piece try to illuminate just such a goal. Those two subjects were “the underlying views of nature in the eighteenth century” and “the conflict between science and religion” in American thought (p. 60-67 and 68-71, respectively). The first task seeks to discover points about intellectual history in general, and the second with regard to U.S. intellectual history in particular.

In discussing his two cases amidst finding larger patterns of thought, Greene uncovered several nuggets useful to today’s intellectual historian. Most of his points within the first example topic, on eighteenth-century views of nature, came to fruition with Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). Those Kuhnian-like points, in Greene’s terms, included the historian’s discovering a period’s dominant and subdominant views, and determining the terminus ad quo and ad quem for all (p. 63-64). Greene’s expressions here felt eerily similar to Kuhn’s, except in the latter’s use of the more pithy term “paradigm.”

But in discussing eighteenth-century views of nature, Greene also argues that intellectual historians must have (1) “a broad exposure to the relevant source materials,” (2) “a logical habit of mind,” and (3) “a keen eye for the recurrence of the telltale words of phrases . . . of a bygone age.”

With regard to (1) and (3), Greene asserts, in an unexpectedly democratic phrase, that “it makes little difference for this purpose whether he is a ‘great thinker’ or just a country parson grinding out a sermon” (p. 65). I used the phrase ‘unexpectedly democratic’ because it was pounded into me, in graduate school, that one of the reasons for intellectual history’s decline after the rise of social history was its exclusiveness: intellectual history only focused on great men, philosophers, and the intellectual elite. While my training wasn’t necessarily false, I see here that at least a few intellectual historians displayed concern for problem as early as 1957. Greene’s phrasing wasn’t as inclusive as a historian today might put it, but he certainly wasn’t limiting thoughtfulness to a society’s elites. Greene purposed that we discover the dominant and subdominant views of an age by exploring all of an age’s thinkers.

Greene admonished intellectual historians to be sensitive to their final manuscripts, to their writing. He warned that “abstract analysis is not the final goal of the intellectual historian’s labors. The end product . . . should be a narrative which not only tells what happened and how and why it happened but makes it happen again for the reader.” Intellectual historians must attend “to the affective tone of general ideas,” and remember that “every world view involves an emotional as well as an intellectual apprehension” (p. 67). Of course all historians today would do well to enliven their presentation of ideas with some sense of how they were both presented (i.e. shrill?) and received (i.e. happily?). But this is not a particularly novel problem in the field. I think all intellectual historians struggle with how to make high-level thought friendly and exciting to readers who might perceive the discussion as dry.

The article heats up for today’s U.S. intellectual historian when Greene begins elaborating on the U.S.-based “conflict between science and religion.” However, his essay’s relevance isn’t because of the still ongoing issue in Kansas, but because of the article’s original goals: objectives and methodology.

Greene’s first concern is over what he called a “Monroe Doctrine in intellectual history.” He feared an “untenable” situation of “America for the Americans,” and “Europe for the Europeans.” He argued against that situation as follows: “The peculiarity of general ideas is their ubiquity in time and place. Western thought is all of a piece. It cannot be chopped up into centuries and countries without rendering it lifeless and meaningless. American thought is but an aspect of Western thought, inseparable from it in any effective sense” (p. 68).

This proposition is worth deep consideration at a web log that proposes to forward the cause of U.S. intellectual history. Are we attempting to set up a disciplinary enclave? No. Enclaving is representative of a poor attitude, but sharing and dialogue are legitimate activities of professionals. So long as promoters of U.S. intellectual history do not set themselves up to act exclusively or become snobs, they do no harm. All particular disciplines are obligated to engage the rest of the historical profession. Intellectual historians that work on U.S. topics and thoughtful actors should of course engage in interdisciplinary work. But the problem today, to me, is that there are not enough self-identifying intellectual historians. Not enough feel free to identify as such due to the lack of demand and the lack of a strong disciplinary superstructure in the United States. Therefore they migrate into other fields – especially cultural history and perhaps interdisciplinary structures. No disciplinary superstructure means no regular U.S. venue for presenting papers. While interdisciplinary, European, and international intellectual history flourishes, U.S. intellectual history suffers from what Greene might have called a reverse Monroe Doctrine.

But, returning to Greene, was he snobbishly arguing that there are no distinctively U.S. ideas? I don’t believe so. He promoted, without naming it as such, an Annales-like long duree. He only asked that U.S. intellectual historians acknowledge the “strands in the complicated web of causes which produces a movement of thought” (p. 65). By looking at the West as a whole, intellectual historians are less likely to miss deeper currents: uniquely U.S. ideas exist, but U.S. intellectual historians need a built-in in system of checks.

To me, the goal for those that study U.S. intellectual history is – using Greene’s words – to “cut beneath the bare exposition of pragmatism, instrumentalism, and other isms to the underlying tensions” of U.S. thought. But Greene finished that same quote, however, by writing “. . . the underlying tensions of Western thought, [of] tensions which have manifested themselves in a thousand forms and contexts from the time of Plato and Aristotle to the present day.” To Greene, “the American intellectual historian must be first and foremost an intellectual historian and only secondarily an American historian” (p. 71). Acting in this fashion would help place “a damper on chauvinism” and discourage “parochialism” (p. 72).

Although there is much to recommend in Greene’s argument, I want to forward the exact opposite proposition. To learn U.S. intellectual history, one must first have a strong sense of the United States’ history and present-day situation – its strengths, weaknesses, vagaries, politics, important women and men, decades, events, and apparent priorities. After gaining a deeper understanding of these things, one should then dig backwards and sideways. That digging ought not be restricted by superficial political boundaries. And because it is as burdensome for U.S. specialists to learn European history, or other histories, as it is for them to learn U.S. history, this is where international, interdisciplinary conferences are important. Finally, returning to Greene’s encouragement to learn Western thinking, I would argue that thinking of the Occident as a monolithic entity is just as problematic as thinking of the Orient as monolithic. Let us first learn the areas where some practical knowledge is feasible (i.e. the U.S., China, France, or even perhaps ‘Europe’), and then turn our mining activity sideways, following veins of thought into areas outside the United States.

As Greene himself asserts (but for mind studies), let’s learn the collective, individual details of U.S. life, culture, and society such that the “lowest common denominators” are understood (p. 73). Then we can perhaps, in the distant future, put together “mind studies” that make more solid generalizations. I’m not sure I want to advocate for those kinds of studies, but if they’re inevitably going to be done (such as Mark Noll’s 1995 The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind) they need to be done with sound premises. But it is as if U.S. intellectual history as a field put the cart before the horse in the 1950s by making the large, basically unfounded generalizations first.
By starting with a sense of the U.S. itself, both its past and present-day circumstances, then the intellectual historian also has a better chance of building a narrative to which today’s readers can relate. Is not the relativist, subjective nature of all endeavors in history based on the fact that historians construct inquiries based on problems and paradoxes seen in her or his lifetime? This is not a bad thing. It results in historical inquiries that speak to today’s reader. If today’s intellectual historian starts by asking questions about the U.S., then he or she can lead the reader backwards, from events with which the reader has had cursory contact.

Greene’s 1957 article clearly contains a number of thought-provoking nuggets. It’s certainly a product of its times, with its emphasis on finding large, epochal patterns of thought, and dominant and subdominant issues. But the piece also contains admonitions and encouragements useful to today’s intellectual historian. Greene proved prescient as well. The field followed his prescription that one should be an intellectual historian “foremost,” and a U.S. historian only “secondarily” (p. 71). While I disagree, I also can’t deny that Greene’s oracle came to be. With my abovementioned caveats in mind, I recommend his 50-year old essay to instructors of courses involving the historiography of intellectual history.

On a final note, the surprising relevance of Greene’s article has likely determined the direction of my next few posts. I foresee writing retrospective reviews of John Higham’s 1951 and 1954 compositions. – TL

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Tim,

    Thanks for the excellent post/retrospective. I enjoyed it immensely and learned a lot.

    I fundamentally agree with you that we as U.S. intellectual historians need to systematically study not only U.S. history but also contemporary life if we are to grasp important historical intellectual currents. This seems consistent with one of E. H. Carr’s arguments in his excellent “What is History?” (1962), which is of the same social and intellectual formation (“paradigm”[!]) as Kuhn’s “Scientific Revolutions.”

    Carr writes, “New vistas, new angles of vision, constantly appear as the procession – and the historian with it – moves along” (p. 43). For Carr, profound historical scholarship is “written precisely when the historian’s vision of the past is illuminated by insights into the problems of the present” (p. 44). This is decidedly NOT a presentist argument he’s making. Rather, quite the opposite. He continues: “The historian who is most conscious of his own situation is also more capable of transcending it…” (p. 53). In other words, those of us most conscious of our own moment are also most aware of how our preoccupations are shaped by a larger social context – which is precisely how good historians think about the past.

    Thanks again for the wonderful post.


  2. Andrew: Thanks for the comment. I’m so glad that you did not interpret my encouragement for starting with contemporary questions as presentist. I truly believe that this is how historians can begin to make U.S. intellectual history relevant again to wider audiences. Of course accessible prose (not necessarily easy or simplified), such as that in Menand’s book, will also be required.

    I read Carr’s book a few years ago as a dissertation break. I’d like to systematically reread it against Sam Wineburg’s Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts. – TL

  3. Tim,

    Thank you for the review. I hadn’t read Greene in many years and reading your review helps me focus on my current research.

    I’m afraid that the decline in US Intellectual history, though, runs much deeper than just the structural problems of not having suitable conferences or in often being too elitist in its orientation.

    I think that one of the “trends” that historians of the future will see in the 20th century is a general trend away from the intellectual framing of contemporary problems beginning sometime in the 1970s and continuing to the present. The 1930s, when American Intellectual History rose to prominence under Perry Miller, to the 1960s was, I think, a much more intellectually framed age than the post-60s. The contests between American ideals first with Fascist Germany and then with Communism created an atmosphere where ideas mattered generally in the culture and so they mattered to historians. Today ideas matter little in the culture, hence our “War on Terror” not on an ideology (Can anyone imagine FDR framing WWII as a “War on Blitzkrieg” or a “War on Sneak Attacks”?)

    So, the task for the remnant (that’s us) is greater still. We have to not only convince our fellow historians that what we do matters. We have to convince the entire culture.

    Thanks for your efforts in getting us going.

  4. Tom: One of the more intriguing e-mails I received after the original “Call to Action” was from an undergraduate student who felt that intellectual history was the best disciplinary approach to problems with terrorism. I suppose one could cite, in the student’s favor, books and articles on the so-called “clash of civilizations.” Of course the question remains whether this clash is one of political ideology or real, deep-seated ideas? But that same question could have been asked of facism or communism. I would argue that historians of U.S. intellectual life are better suited than other disciplines to address such a potentially sweeping issue. What are the real ideas behind the U.S. today? Are there no ideas, or its it all shallow consumption, production, and exploitation? Perhaps this is precisely the time, the opportunity for historians of U.S. intellectual life to make their presence known? – TL

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