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.