U.S. Intellectual History Blog

What Is U.S. Intellectual History? Toward A More Definite Identity

[Original USIH content by Tim Lacy, Chicago, IL]

In an H-Ideas post from January 17, 2007, I asserted that the field of U.S. intellectual history was perhaps at “its all-time low as an independent entity.” I also asserted, in melodramatic fashion, that the field was in its “death throes.” Since then I’ve come to realize that the real issue seems to be identity. This was implicit when I stated that a “gathering with those focused on intellectual history would help with technical, historiographical, and philosophical issues peculiar to its discipline.” [1] I was advocating for something that would give the field some character in relation to other historical subdisciplines.

With the issue of identity in mind, I want to stake out a claim for U.S. intellectual history as an independent entity. Providing a tentative – yet ambitious – definition of the field might help invigorate enthusiasm for activities on its behalf. Some may view this definition as a kind of disciplinary policing or turf-defining exercise. That is not at all my intent. While others desire walls and boundary setting, I seek only a more definite identity. All varieties of intellectual history inherently push boundaries. But before a discipline can be interdisciplinary, it must necessarily have some claim of its own. This essay’s goal is to define intellectual history’s uniqueness as a whole, with a particular eye on its U.S. subdiscipline.

Answers to the following questions will help in the quest for identification: What are the similarities between U.S. intellectual history and rest of U.S. history’s subdisciplines? Are there any substantial differences? What does intellectual history have to do with philosophy, literary theory, the history of U.S. philosophy, the history of science, cultural history, and the history of ideas? Is it mostly an interdisciplinary field? Why does U.S. intellectual history matter at all?

Thorough answers to these comparative questions would require a lengthy composition, one unsuitable for a web log or e-mail format. I can, however, forward some nodes of thought about which the field of intellectual history, on the whole, seems to revolve. These nodes can then be applied to the context of the United States.

In general, intellectual history today is less enthusiastic about exploring large bodies of people. That kind of overly ambitious work got the field in trouble in the 1950s and early 1960s. But intellectual history is certainly not unconnected to social history. Masses of people can be guided by ideals or ideologies, and intellectual history is a discipline where the reader – and writer – make stops in time to analyze the virtues and vices of ideas. In this way intellectual history shares something with philosophy. Intellectual historians should not fear the act of pausing to analyze a text, and that pause should be longer in a book of intellectual history than it may be in other historical disciplines.

Because of the depth of analysis, the field of intellectual history shares other traits with philosophy. The intellectual historian should be expected, more than in other historical subdisciplines, to use the critical tools of philosophy (i.e. logic) to unpack an idea or text’s strengths and weaknesses. The intellectual historian might explore language theory’s view of a particular document, or try to reconstruct arguments not explicitly made by a historical actor. As has been the case throughout its entire history, intellectual history therefore finds much in common with literary theory and the critical evaluation of literary history. And as with literary theory and some other historical subdisciplines, intellectual historians are very much concerned with hidden assumptions. But intellectual historians try to link those assumptions to logical arguments and critical theory in general.

This relationship with philosophy might lead the casual observer to call every historian of philosophy an intellectual historian. But that’s not the case. A historian of philosophy generally focuses on self-proclaimed philosophers, whether professional or amateur, but does not purposely seek out ideas and ideals in the culture at large. Yet the intellectual historian, however, is sometimes necessarily a historian of philosophy. Some philosophers have affected, directly and indirectly, larger numbers of people. In the 1960s, for instance, student activists and revolutionaries in the U.S. found much to like in the work of Herbert Marcuse and C. Wright Mills. The self-proclaimed intellectual historian always seeks to trace the movement of ideas beyond the dialogue of philosophers.

The intellectual historian’s comfort and relationship with philosophy also result in theorizing – philosophizing – about the nature of history itself. Hence, those interested in theories of history share common ground with philosophers and intellectual historians, but not every theorizer of history is an intellectual historian. A philosopher of history may not necessarily care about how an idea useful to the historian has developed historically, or who the key figures were in an idea’s development. The intellectual historian, on the other hand, acting as a historiographer does seek to trace that development.

This same relationship holds with historians of science. Their work focuses on professional and amateur scientists, but does not have to aim at larger philosophical ideals, ideas, and the deep analysis of texts. Of course larger, transcendent ideas do arise as a consequence of the work of certain scientific projects: one need only think of Big Bang theory to prove this. The historian of science, as such, may most certainly traffic in social, cultural, or intellectual history, utilizing methods peculiar to each field, but nevertheless limits his or her scope more than would an intellectual historian. The intellectual historian, on the other hand, uses the history of science and other subfields in order to trace the larger effects of an idea in history. An intellectual historian (or intellectual historian of science) would be more likely, for instance, to trace the idea of ‘progress’ by synthesizing the work of historians of science and philosophers (i.e. Hegel).

What of cultural history’s relationship with intellectual history? Here the distinctions become fuzzier, and the emphases and interests of individual historians become deciding factors. Cultural history deals with a broad set of artifacts and the activities of people: it is very interested in what ties or brings a people together. This interdisciplinary aspect of cultural history mimics the same traits as they exist in intellectual history. But while an intellectual historian might, especially in the past, deal with culture in a broad “mind study,” the cultural historian does not, by necessity explore philosophy, or the deepest aspects of an idea’s formation. Cultural historians can deal with philosophers and philosophy, but intellectual historians are required to look deeply at a text, to pause and linger over the assumptions and potential contradictions of an idea.

An example of a work, to me, that successfully bridges (or complicates, depending your perspective) this divide is Michael Denning’s The Cultural Front. [2] Denning succeeded in showing, over and over, how Popular Front artists imbued their cultural productions with socialist ideas. But works like Denning’s are rare, and the Library of Congress classified his work in three ways: 20th century popular culture, 20th century American arts, and 1918-1945 U.S. social life and customs. None of these, interestingly enough, mention intellectual history.

If pressed I’d argue that the critical difference between an intellectual and cultural historian rests on two factors: (1) the self identification of the historian in question, and (2) a historian’s willingness to unabashedly utilize the language of philosophy. Of course the latter makes a critical difference in a history book’s audience, especially in a society that Cornel West accused of suffering from an “evasion to philosophy.” [3] The sometimes complicated, even archaic language of philosophy may turn off the casual reader of cultural history. But the intellectual historian seems willing to make this sacrifice (so long as her or his publisher is on board).

So the intellectual historian today, as the designation has developed over time, straddles the boundaries between culture, society, science, ideas, literature, and philosophy. Intellectual history’s interdisciplinary nature, especially among the subdisciplines of history, allows its practitioners maximum latitude. The intellectual historian is expected to pull together secondary (and primary) source material from a number of fields in order to understand the movement of an idea. This perhaps explains the apparent diminishing of the field: practitioners of intellectual history are dispersed in a number of other disciplines. Bruce Kuklick forwarded a similar argument with regard to philosophy’s diminished status in his 2001 book, A History of Philosophy in America.

This brings me to a tough topic: the relationship between intellectual history and the history of ideas. What’s the difference between the two, at least among U.S.-based historians? By way of historiography, we know that Arthur Lovejoy helped found the field of the history of ideas. That style of writing and research was less concerned with social and cultural events that surrounded the production of an idea or text, and more concerned with an idea’s relation to past ideas. In sum, Lovejoy and his followers believed that ideas could transcend time, and that writers were not strictly hooked to environmental circumstances. Lovejoy’s approach enabled transcendent unit ideas analyses (i.e. the history of evil) and often overly ambitious generalizations about periods (i.e. the aforementioned ‘mind studies’).

Practitioners and enthusiasts of intellectual history, on the other hand, preferred to limit analyses of intellectual life to limited time periods. They sought to connect as much as possible the ideas in a text to the environment in which the text was produced. They are sometimes called historicists. Important figures in this field included James Harvey Robinson (a professional pioneer, albeit with European topics), Merle Curti, and John Higham among others. The abusers of Lovejoy’s transcendent approach annoyed the historicists. The historicists felt that practitioners of the history of ideas overlooked too many exceptions, that their generalizations were too broad. In sum, historians of ideas did not nuance their analyses with enough attention to differences in time and space.

It’s likely clear to the reader that the ultimate tension between the two views of the field is the distinction between text and context. How much context is enough? How do we define context? Can context mean the place of text in the midst of other texts of time, or the place of an idea within other ideas of a time? Is context always the wider events of period? Is it possible that a piece of writing, or discussion of an idea, can transcend its context? Can a book produced during the Cold War be unaffected or unrelated to the Cold War? What contextual events are so ubiquitous, so powerful, that nothing remains untouched? I would argue that few are that powerful. Hasn’t everyone felt the overreaching by those who contend that the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 changed everything?

But what should intellectual historians today do about the text/context distinction? Well, there are at least two compromise options. The first involves focusing on “communities of discourse.” I initially ran across this solution in John Higham and Paul Conkin’s New Directions in American Intellectual History, especially in a contributing essay by David A. Hollinger, and saw the method successfully utilized in Thomas Bender’s New York Intellect. [4] With “communities of discourse” as a guiding theory, intellectual historians can accommodate the desire to dig deep, to explore arguments, while also contextualizing an idea within dialogue. The intellectual historian can use this approach to bring in biography and relevant, diverse life events, without losing focus on the ideas to be explored.

Intellectual historians today could also treat the text/context question as a false dichotomy. It’s not an either/or proposition, but rather one of light or heavy context. Some studies call for heavy contextual analysis, but others might be fine with a light-handed contextual exploration. Dominick La Capra has addressed text and context issues in works such as History in Transit (2004), but the issue still seems to plague the field – and intellectual history in particular. [5]

Since most practitioners of intellectual history today lean toward the historicist view of the field, it’s more appropriate to defend those who find virtue in Lovejoy’s history of ideas approach. With that, rather than question whether a so-called historian of ideas can analyze the “history of good” or the “history of lust,” why not take those studies for what they are? Why not criticize them on other grounds than their ability to account for every event and figure of an era? Don’t transcendent studies of more defined ideas help introduce readers to a broad range of historical questions? If so, is there not some good in writing a “mind study?” Clearly these works attract attention, such those recent ones on terrorism and the clash of civilizations. Why not just acknowledge the uses (and weaknesses) of the Lovejoy’s disciples without vilifying their approach?

I subscribe to both of these compromise approaches between intellectual history and the history of ideas. By acknowledging both, as well as intellectual history’s relations with the other subdisciplines of history, I believe that intellectual historians can be interdisciplinary historians, par excellence. In sum, no one can claim to be an intellectual historian without being one who moves between historical subdisciplines.

But why U.S. intellectual history? In another analysis at this web log of John C. Greene’s 1957 article, “Objectives and Methods in Intellectual History,” I asserted the following: “To learn U.S. intellectual history, one must first have a strong sense of the United States’ general 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. . . . 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.” [6]

Taking this approach to the field has the side benefit of keeping questions about U.S. intellectual history relevant to present-day problems. Esoteric explorations ought, of course, still take place, but using the present to guide inquiries into the past will keep the discipline fresh to today’s readers.

The question of why “U.S.” intellectual history also involves humility and another bit of chastening for the discipline. All too often the term ‘American’ is misused to identify the field, giving works of “American Intellectual History” more geographical significance than they actually have. No so-called work of “American Intellectual History” should convey the sense, unintentional or no, that it might in any way speak generally for all peoples of North, Latin, or South America. Of course U.S. history involves colonialism, and the phrase “U.S. Intellectual History” is not meant to exclude that period of study: all activities aimed at the formation of the United States are significant to its intellectual history. But in the end, the notion of “U.S. intellectual history” gives more definition and identity to the discipline.

If we can consider the “why U.S.” topical aspect of the question answered, what of the state of the field here in the United States. Historians of U.S. intellectual life must have a sense of best practices, errors, interdisciplinary methods, and important topics in the field. This sense must be available to aspirants in the United States. This knowledge can only be gained by associating and conferring with those “in the know.” That learning and those conversations can only take place if the field has a sense of identity. I fear that without some sort of superstructure or gathering place, the lessons learned by senior historians will become lessons lost.

With these thoughts on identity in mind, all aimed at defining and carving out a distinct place for the field, I argue that U.S. intellectual history – not just intellectual history in general – can be a potentially vibrant and relevant historical sub discipline. More adherents might also result in more quality works about the thought of all U.S. denizens. If the field takes it upon itself to foster a distinct identity, perhaps it can then help promote the overall intellectual life of the U.S.? Few at home or abroad would complain about that.

Comments are welcome.


[I have benefited from the suggestions and criticisms of H-Ideas editor Neil Brody Miller, as well as my colleagues at the U.S. Intellectual History (USIH) web log, including Paul Anderson, Andrew Hartman, Paul Murphy, Mike O’Connor, Joe Petrulionis, Sylwester Ratowt, and John Thomas Scott. But no matter any assistance received, I take sole responsibility for the content of this post. – TL]

[1] Tim Lacy, “U.S. Intellectual History: A Call To Action,” History and Education: Past and Present web log, January 17, 2007. Available here.

[2] Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (New York: Verso, 1997).

[3] Cornel West, The American Evasion of Philosophy (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989).

[4] John Higham and Paul K. Conkin, eds., New Directions in American Intellectual History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979); Thomas Bender, New York Intellect (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987).

[5] Dominck La Capra, History in Transit: Experience, Identity, Critical Theory (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004).

[6] Tim Lacy, “John C. Greene’s ‘Objectives and Methods in Intellectual History:’ A 50-Year Retrospective Review And Comment,” U.S. Intellectual History web log, February 21, 2007. Available here.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thank you Tim, for the engaging description of US Intellectual History. I for one benefited from your patient analysis of the differences between Intellectual History and the History of Ideas, and your comments on cultural history. I share with you your resistance to any hard and drawn boundaries. After all, how could we define a “field” called US Intellectual History? We might list the sub-fields, but it would be an immense project, and forward motion in that effort would come from potential participants complaining over the exclusion of their own discipline. We might craft an inclusive definition around what we mean by the terms “US,” “Intellectual,” and “History.” But these exercises would bog down in inconclusive axiomatic taxonomy. Perhaps we could sidestep the question by brazenly asking “what US Intellectual History Is Not?” I wonder if this helps at all, or if it would be essentially exclusive? Pragmatically, this class of question may have implications over what kinds of book length projects can be “appropriately” reviewed and posted on the USIH book review sites. Otherwise I would probably have, myself, avoided the topic altogether. As one of the book review editors, I would much rather see us spend our time writing books and reading books, (and reviewing new books) and much less time in classifying them.

    From my own perspective, “Intellectual History” is text about past human intellectual activities, broadly defined. All of the fields, disciplines, arts, sciences, philosophies, meta-fields, and other systematic efforts to understand anything, when evaluated as a part of human past experience, would be Intellectual History. That’s the easy part. The trouble for me comes in facing the term “U.S.” A book written about a US (born, educated, and based) scholar would certainly be about US Intellectual activity, even if that scholar conducted most of her work within the traditions we now term “Continental Philosophy.” What about a historian of Art who is looking at the Hudson River School? He is certainly involved in US Intellectual History, even if he has never been to the United States. We certainly do not want to exclude the work of any scholar based on birth place, or academic affiliation. So it may be amplifying the obvious to question, in this search for communitarian podium access, why should we be exclusive at all? Open source architecture within the history of systems of thinking may work very well for us. Let’s assume that anyone interested in a scholarly initiative entitled US Intellectual History can decide if their contributions are US Intellectual History or not. If any of us disagree, let us disagree. Am I asking to create a “Wiki” History? Maybe.

  2. Joe,

    It’s funny how the mind works. I composed the first draft of this piece many weeks ago, and have reviewed and revised it periodically since, most intensively this morning before posting, yet a number of additional, relevant points keep occurring to me. What’s that phrase about writing projects never being finished, but only abandoned?

    Anyway, a phrase that never came to me until after posting is ‘metadiscipline.’ I think I see intellectual history in general, and its U.S. variety in particular, as an overarching metafield for practitioners of U.S. history. Intellectual history seems to me to be a more inclusive, organizing discipline than cultural history, for instance. My sense is that this is because of theory. Cultural history, by its nature, argues for theoretical limitations based on cultural conditions. Intellectual history, on the other hand, has that niche for the transcendent history of ideas. It seems possible to me for intellectual history, with its relationship to philosophy, to be transcultural and ergo more interdisciplinary.

    With this in mind, I want to enthusiastically reinforce that our project – intellectual history of the U.S. – should be as inclusive as possible. The goal is to understand thought in and about the U.S. It matters not from where those histories come.

    Of course asking “What isn’t U.S. intellectual history?” can be as valuable as my guiding formulation. I simply wanted to approach the subject positively, to give intellectual historians something of which to grab a hold rather than a laundry list of things to avoid. I don’t know if I succeeded, but that was the goal.

    – Tim

  3. I tripped back across an eloquent observation made in 1991 by John Brockman entitled “Edge: The Third Culture.” Perhaps it is still appropriately invoked here as we grapple with the terms to describe our field mosaic. But I hope his charges are by now anachronistic.

    While all USIH readers will not agree with all of the characterizations included in this short piece, it did force a 1990’s reconsideration of many underpinning assumptions about our term “Intellectual,” and the way we often use it to mark property bounds. Here is a snippet:

    “In the past few years, the playing field of American intellectual life has shifted, and the traditional intellectual has become increasingly marginalized. A 1950s education in Freud, Marx, and modernism is not a sufficient qualification for a thinking person in the 1990s. Indeed, the traditional American intellectuals are, in a sense, increasingly reactionary, and quite often proudly (and perversely) ignorant of many of the truly significant intellectual accomplishments of our time. Their culture, which dismisses science, is often nonempirical. It uses its own jargon and washes its own laundry. It is chiefly characterized by comment on comments, the swelling spiral of commentary eventually reaching the point where the real world gets lost.
    In 1959 C.P. Snow published a book titled The Two Cultures. On the one hand, there were the literary intellectuals; on the other, the scientists. He noted with incredulity that during the 1930s the literary intellectuals, while no one was looking, took to referring to themselves as ‘the intellectuals,’ as though there were no others. This new definition by the ‘men of letters’ excluded scientists such as the astronomer Edwin Hubble, the mathematician John von Neumann, the cyberneticist Norbert Wiener, and the physicists Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, and Werner Heisenberg.”

    The rest is at http://www.edge.org/about_edge.html
    an enjoyable stop on your late night browsing circuit.



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