U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Defining The Intellectual Historian

While playing with our newborn baby, around 6:30 a.m.—in an attempt to tire him out for a morning nap—my mind drifted toward intellectual history. I’m unsure of exactly what prompted the drift: perhaps I was merely thinking about what makes a baby tick? During a break before seeing him, I had also scanned an HNN Breaking News e-mail update that contained two stories with connections to philosophy. One story recalled how an historian prompted the musings of an ethicist, and another noted a philosopher’s call, to historians, to help us remember the heroes who resisted Adolph Hitler.

No matter the instigation, I began wondering about what it is that makes being an intellectual historian different. What is it that differentiates us—yes, I’ll say that—from other historians? And of course in the context of USIH this discussion has an eye on the United States. Here are a few ways I see the intellectual historian as essentially different:

1. The intellectual historian cares deeply about the subject of philosophy. We want to know how the subtleties of an idea affect how people think and then act. Of course ideas also motivate feelings—sometimes to the detriment of reason, and we care about those effects as well. But in the final analysis, the intellectual historian, to me, seeks to explore how philosophy affects both the historical subjects and contexts under consideration, as well as how the historian is theorizing her/his narrative. Philosophy, then, doubly affects the movements of the intellectual historian.

2. While cultural historians search for meaning in events and the doings of people, they don’t ~necessarily~ try and connect that meaning to philosophy. I see the intellectual historian as ~necessarily~ having to make that attempt. While the effort may fail, or prove futile, the intellectual historian is obligated. Of course the intellectual historian might then be apt to forget or de-emphasize the actual events in her/his narrative, which opens one to charges of presentism or improper abstraction. In that way the intellectual historian acts more as a philosopher.

3. Intellectual historians make a concerted effort to get at the thought of their human subjects. We don’t simply write our narratives based on the action observed (and verified). We care about thought processes. Intellectual historians want to know the variations of ideas as played out in individuals and unique contexts.

Can you add more? How else is the intellectual historian different from other types of chroniclers of the past? Am I off base—or slap happy due to lack of sleep? – TL

PS – My post from last March, titled “What is U.S. Intellectual History?” might be considered a companion piece to this one.

12 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Tim,
    I have found most helpful two works on this topic. The first is, of course, the 1977 Wingspread Conference essays published as _New Directions in American Intellectual History_. The other essay was Paul Conkin’s “Intellectual History: Past, Present, and Future” published in _The Future of History: Essays in the Vanderbilt University Centennial Symposium_ (ed. Charles F. Delzell). Conkin exemplifies for me the intellectual historian deeply engaged with philosophy. In the essay, he writes that intellectual historians “almost have to blend empirical data with speculative theory.” This seems to me not only the most distinctive feature of intellectual historians but of our subject as well, namely the United States. Writing of William James, Dewey wrote, “I love, indeed, to think that there is something profoundly American in his union of philosophy with life.” Similarly, in his Wingspread essay, Henry F. May finds the historian’s life experience inseparable from one’s work. This blending of the two, thought and act, seem to best distinguish the intellectual historian from others.

  2. Tim,

    I might add one thing: intellectual history is, I think, the best means to delineate the boundaries of acceptability of a given historical context. If a a specific philosophical of epistemological strain gains wide circulation–if it resonates–then it by definition falls within the margins of convention. If not, then we can put it outside such margins. Thus, intellectual history is excellently situated to narrate the norm and the exception to the norm.


  3. Tim: Great topic. But I’m not sure I agree with your claim that intellectual history must deal with philosophy. Philosophy is one discipline among many with which an intellectual historian can engage. The ideas of race in anthropology, for example. Or the the idea of culture. The history of science seems to offer plenty of material for an intellectual historian. And, of course, there is a long standing connection between intellectual history and literature. I’ve read more than my share of philosophy and I certainly have some works of philosophy that I cherish. But I’ll just go ahead and say it: I’m not sure I care all that deeply about the subject of philosophy in the abstract. Can I still be an intellectual hisorian?


  4. David: Obviously no one can formally say who is and who isn’t an intellectual historian: There is no single accepted body (i.e. association) that defines our field, hence my post. It seems right now that you are one if you aspire to be one. I’m throwing out a few lures, fishing for body of characteristics. And on philosophy, I decidedly did ~not~ say that one must like or enjoy philosophy to be an intellectual historian, but one must nevertheless reckon with it in terms of (a) delineating thought processes (i.e. figuring out an others epistemology) and (b) having a clear sense of your own commitments as an historian. This is why serious historians aspire for the Ph.D.—the doctorate of philosophy in history. To me, it would be most shameful for the intellectual historian to not have a clear sense of what drives her or his own interrogation of the past.

    Andrew: I think what you’re indirectly talking about what Huizinga famously explored—the weltenshauung (sp?) or air of the times. I think also that you might be right, although a thorough cultural historian might see the commonalities—the norms—of a period just as well by empirical clues.

    Thomas: I’m not familiar with Conkin’s The Future of History, but my memory of New Directions is that it sought more to define ~what~ intellectual historians study rather than try and define what makes an intellectual historian. In the late 1970s they, meaning intellectual historians, seemed to know who they were as a body, and that they were different, but seemed to feel that they understood their appropriate subject matter less well. In this post I’m trying to understand what makes an intellectual historian essentially different from historians in general. With that, I am approaching that subject from a mental approach to history rather than any single topic, event, or other empirical object of study. – TL

  5. Tim,
    You are right. You did not say that an intellectual historian had to like philosophy. And I am in absolute agreement that an intellectual historian needs to have a clear sense of why she or he is investigating the past and the assumptions and theoretical commitments that she brings to that work. But I think that is true of every other kind of historian as well. It seems to me that your definition, as it stands right now, is in danger of confusing the historian’s role as an intellectual with the historian’s subject and method. You seem to be saying that only intellectual historians MUST be intellectuals, and other kinds of historians can be. . . I’m not sure what. When you say that you are “trying to understand what makes an intellectual historian essentially different from historians in general,” I’m worried that it almost sounds as if your answer is: they are different because they use their intellect to investigate the theoretical commitments that they have and bring to bear on their work. That intellectual historians study the intellect and past intellectual formations, I have no quarrel with. But that they bring intellectual resources, which you put under the name “philosophy,” to their subject seems to me to true of every good history, intellectual or not. Am I misreading you?


  6. David,

    You’re not misreading me, but most definitely you’re asking me to clarify something I left too vague in subpoint (b) of my comment above. I thank you for this.

    On intellectual historians understanding their assumptions and commitments, I agree that all historians ought to engage those issues. As intellectuals they’re obligated to philosophize.

    But many historians, Ph.D.s and otherwise, do not. I’m sure you know ~more than~ a handful of historians—with tenure and without, with long c.v.s in the field—that simply ignore the deeper questions. For them the Ph.D. was kind of a union card to the field. Even if we excuse that class of historians—I’ll call them anti-intellectual historians—I still think the general run of professional historians only seeks to understand their philosophical commitments to some degree.

    The intellectual historian, on the other hand, is—to extend point (b) of my reply above—is both obligated and expected to understand even the subtleties of their commitments. To me it’s part of their role as an intellectual historian to think more deeply about those finer points.

    For instance, if an intellectual historian makes a claim to sympathies with the school of pragmatism, then she/he is obligated to understand how C.I. Lewis and C.S. Peirce fit into their paradigm. Or if one claims a Marxist/materialist understanding of history, then they’re obligated to understand Gramsci and others to place themselves thoroughly in a school of thought. I believe that even many Ph.D. historians stop half-way. The intellectual historian, on the other hand, relishes the deeper questions.

    And to the extent that cultural, feminist, Marxist, and other historians do this, they’re definitely engaging not only the intellectual history of their own field, but also the field of philosophy. They’re acting like both philosophers and intellectual historians.

    Does this help?

    I thank you for making me clarify this: I apologize for laying things out too simply in my comments. – TL

  7. In a way, I think I agree with Tim: to do intellectual history is to philosophize. However, I come at this conclusion through somewhat different reasoning. As any historians, we are able to present historical stories using only the causes and categories which we currently find acceptable for a given context. We necessarily start from the present, from our understanding of the current world and in relation to it we understand historical events–as being some or different. As our view of ourself changes, so too our view of history must change. (I hope it is clear that I am not advocating presentist history in which current categories are assumed to be adequate to describe the past.) This is not unique to intellectual history. The unique thing about it is the topic. For me at least, the topic of intellectual history is the people’s (shared) attempts to comprehend the world in which they lived; I am sure others would describe it differently. The philosophical part enters when we are not satisfied with the stories we can tell using the causes and categories we bring with our analysis. Then we start to reevaluate those and by the end of the process we have a story with which we are satisfied (and we see our current world differently). For example, in my current project I am noticing the limitations of using the notion of “idea” in historical analysis. Ideas as entities which can be shared, transmitted, constructed or even forced upon someone fail to adequately describe activities of the historical actors whom I am investigating. I am searching for alternatives.

    We are U.S. historians because the U.S. is the context without understanding of which nothing else can be done.

    I aspire to be an intellectual historian (but am often confused about my intellectual direction) and by no means think that the above view of the our work needs (or even should) be shared by others.

  8. Tim: This is an interesting discussion. As you know, I’m no intellectual historian. So I can’t offer any boundary-defining commentary, except from the outside. I’ll spare you all the caricatures that circulate in the Labor History seminars.

    But my current research might be intellectual history. As you know, I’m researching self-educated working class intellectuals in the US during the early 20th century. These were folks who had minimal formal education, but engaged the world of ideas through books, lectures, and social movements. Kind of a US version of Jonathan Rose.

    Seems to me that this study is only intellectual history under your #3. And in fact, it is for the most part a “cultural history of intellectuals” rather than intellectual history. That doesn’t bother me. But I wonder if Intellectual History, as a field, wants to give up such a rich terrain? Can there be an “intellectual history” of the popular classes, or must that be “cultural history”? –Toby

  9. Toby,

    Thanks for coming by! It’s great to have a labor historian participating in discussion here.

    Whether we label your/our work “intellectual history” or the “cultural history of intellectuals,” the ideas with which the subjects engaged is still important, yes? I mean, we’re looking at ~why~ they read as much as ~what~ they read, yes? I realize that the latter is more empirical, “safe” ground so to speak, but I strongly suspect that you’re also thinking about how they applied their intellectual engagments afterward. What’s the use of historians thinking about their reading if we’re not also looking backwards and forwards?

    To me, no intellectual historian should give up the terrain of cultural history. It’s an ~and~ rather than ~or~ situation. Intellectual historians add another useful layer to the situation; they extend analysis with a different set of tools.

    If we take the time to speculate—in a useful, constructive way—about ~how~ working-class intellectuals thought, then we are doing intellectual history as I laid it out in point #3.

    In the end, if we take time to connect the apparent movements of a class of folks (working or otherwise) to philosophy or the world of ideas, then that effort constitutes intellectual history. In this way all sorts of historians (including those in labor) do a little, or occasionally do, intellectual history.

    If the effort becomes a large part of the narrative, then the work as a whole becomes one of intellectual history or the history of ideas. If an historian does this consistently across his works, then she/he is in intellectual historian—to connect your good points to my original purpose in putting up this post. – TL

  10. As one who dropped out of a philosophy Ph.D. program in order to (more-or-less) switch to intellectual history, I take some issue with the claim that intellectual historians are philosophers in any form. It can be easy to make that assumption, because intellectual historians seem disproportionately interested in ideas that overlap with the concerns of philosophy: politics, religion, the nature of science, etc. Even when they take up such ideas, however, they do so in a very non-philosophical way. Moreover, these overlapping interests are (as philosophers like to say) an accidental rather than an essential one, reflecting the contingent interests of practitioners. David pointed out the example of works that deal with race and might be dealing with anthropological concerns rather than philosophical ones; along similar lines, I immediately thought of Cynthia Eagle Russett’s book on Darwinism in the late nineteenth century U.S.: a quintessential intellectual history, but not one I would call philosophical.

    Furthermore, in order to construct a definition, we would first need to agree on the extension of the term. Is there even a consensus on which works (or types of work) count as intellectual history? Without such an understanding, I’m not sure that investigating the nature of U.S. intellectual history is all that productive.

    But my final point raises my biggest concern: why does intellectual history need to be defined at all? I am raising an objection along pragmatist lines here: even assuming we got a perfect definition, I don’t see how anyone’s life would be any different than it is now. To my knowledge, there is no work being labelled as intellectual history despite its lack of proper credentials, and no one is decrying their inability to practice intellectual history without such a definition. What do we get from such a definition?

  11. I, too, am skeptical of not just usefulness, but even a possibility of a definition. But I do agree that a much more useful would be a list of books (or thesis) with which an U.S. intellectual historian is expected to be familiar. Assuming that a community is functionally defined by shared expectations of knowledge, familiarity with which works is a requirement to be considered a literate academic U.S. intellectual historian. Put another way, which books I can assume that you know, if I assume that you are a U.S. intellectual historians? Would such a list be any less problematic than an attempt at a definition? Could such a list be constructed? To clarify, I am not asking for the Great Books of intellectual history (I hate top 10 lists etc), or a fair representation of themes, topics, approaches etc, or a generals reading list, but a list of books which I would insult an insider (at least a pretentious one) by assuming that they don’t know about (“Oh, you study American intellectual history, there is this book that might interest you. It’s by this guy Menand, The Metaphysical Club”)

  12. Mike asks: “What do we get from such a definition?”

    I say identity. The problem with the field for the last 20 years or so is decline. Fewer and fewer folks self-identify, or identify at all, with intellectual history. And those that do are very well established in the field, and do so on an international basis. That puts intellectual history out of touch for the common entrant in graduate studies in history.

    My interest with USIH is to foster a common culture among historians interested in the history of ideas, history of philosophy, intellectual history, and other fields. My effort with this post and others is help us figure out what binds us together. Is it philosophy? Is it transcendent ideas? Is it a very deep interest in the philosophy of history? Is it a concern for thought processes? Is it a concern, as Susan Jacoby articularted, for the promotion of reason in history and in U.S. culture in general?

    After finding some answers to these questions, then are those bonds strong enough that we want to form a society or have conferences? – TL

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