U.S. Intellectual History Blog

An Intellectual History Manifesto

1. Intellectual history situates texts with intellectual content into their contexts.
2. Intellectual history is indistinct from cultural history, because the context of all texts includes the cultural context in which they were produced and find their meaning.
3. Intellectual history has strong ties to social history, because culture is always a product of a group, so the context of a text will always be situated in the group out of which it grew.
4. Intellectual history moves through these expanded circles of context in search of the most expansive sense of meaning and consequence for an idea.
5. Intellectual history utilizes narratives, because the meaning and consequence of ideas only unfold through time.
6. All good history has elements of intellectual history.


8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I am concerned with the word “indistinct” in #2 above. If by “indistinct” you mean “equivalent to” or “interchangeable with,” then I do not agree. Cultural history is not intellectual history; if it were, there would be no reason for intellectual history to exist. Joyce Appleby wrote a phrase in the introduction to one of her books (that I am too lazy to dig up now) that said something like she was studying “intentionally constructed arguments.” Even when cultural history is concerned with ideas, it is much less likely to be concerned with arguments; even when intellectual history is concerned with culture, it is far more likely to be interested in arguments.

    I am thinking of, say, Trachtenberg’s The Incorporation of America, in which he persuasively argues that the idea of the corporation occupied a central place in the culture precisely because people took it so much for granted that they seldom made arguments about how important it was. To me, that is argument is, in its essence, one of cultural and not intellectual history. To take the opposite case, Westbrook’s study of Dewey certainly does not ignore the culture in which Dewey lived, but it doesn’t tell the reader nearly as much about Gilded Age, Progressive, New Deal and even Cold War America (the guy lived forever!) as it does about Dewey’s “intentionally constructed arguments.”

    Personally, I think it is more accurate to say that intellectual history “often overlaps with” cultural history. But that’s a little wishy-washy–hardly worthy of a manifesto!

    I also do not agree with number 6 above. I have read many (well, perhaps, “several” is more accurate) monograph type works that are filled with detail and do very little with “intentionally constructed arguments,” or even with the cultural construction of meaning, and would not for that reason call them bad history. In fact, it’s incredibly valuable history and every day I rejoice that some people enjoy writing that stuff so that I can turn to it when I write my more “ethereal” works. : )

  2. Dear Mike,
    I love this comment.

    I was feeling a little polemical when I wrote this, so I’m perfectly happy to admit that cultural history “often overlaps with” intellectual history, rather than being completely interchangeable with it. There is some difference between the two, although I’m not sure how much. My main quibble with your comment is that I am not sure that I agree with the idea that intellectual history addresses “intentionally constructed arguments” alone. Some people make arguments, some people hear arguments, some people act on the basis of an idea embedded in an argument that is little understood. Where do we draw the line? I’m afraid that the criterion of intentionally constructed arguments makes the practice of intellectual history too elite. I can imagine an intellectual history of the working class, and intellectual history of slaves, etc. The issue seems to be, can you have an intellectual history that does not have discreet thinkers? I say yes, which is why I have no problem blurring the boundaries between intellectual and cultural history.

    In number 6, I am also happy to acknowledge that I was too polemical. How about “most good history has elements of intellectual history.” What I mean is that most good history involves people using ideas. Some environmental histories or histories of the longue duree do not, but they are the exception. A historical work without ideas is usually a report from the archive, a brick that someone else uses to make a good history.

    My general point in the manifesto was to reject the “circle the wagons” impulse of definition. I’m in complete agreement with a comment that you made in the prior post that a definition of intellectual history is probably not that productive. Intellectual history is connected to all other kinds of history. I would be perfectly happy saying that most good history has elements of cultural history, social history, etc. My manifesto is really an attempt to connect intellectual history with many other kinds of history, so that we can move beyond the definitional issue and instead just practice history without trying to draw lines.

  3. David and Mike,

    Since this post is clearly a response to the one just before it chronologically (mine), I’ll jump in.

    I did not in any way mean for my post to encourage a ” ‘circle the wagons’ impulse.” I apologize for it seeming so. I feel I’ve been fighting this argument since agitating for the weblog—and for the conference and for a society.

    The reason I feel the “definition” endeavor is productive has to do with field identity. That goes to the PS at the bottom of my post, which pointed the reader back to another March 07 rumination on who we are. It also goes to the impulse behing Sylwester’s comment on common readings—or a common culture within U.S. intellectual history.

    I appreciate flexibility and inter-field collaboration. No question. I want it. But that can be done only when one has a solid footing from which collaborate. Let’s do both, not just the one. – TL

  4. David:

    This issue of elitism within intellectual history is, of course, a consistent thorn in the side of intellectual historians, and I understand your concerns over my appearing to embrace it. But I nonetheless disagree strongly with the line of reasoning that “the criterion of intentionally constructed arguments makes the practice of intellectual history too elite.”

    I would first argue that this criticism is based on a premise that is itself elitist: that only elites can intentionally construct arguments. (I owe this point to Stephanie Evans, who will be appearing with me at the OAH roundtable on intellectual history in a few weeks, and has recently published a book called Black Women in the Ivory Tower, 1850-1954: An Intellectual History.) And if the argument is that this ability makes one elite by definition, then I’d be willing to accept that intellectual history is elitist, but would say that such a criticism is not very damning.

    I also reject the notion that studying elites, even exclusively so, is by definition elitist, any more than specializing in the U.S. makes one xenophobic. Elitism in history, I would argue, comes from the systematic exclusion of non-elites from studies whose subject matter should otherwise include them. But the intentional restriction of one’s scope to a given group is what historians do to shape their writing and avoid overgeneralization. For example, neither the history of science nor diplomatic history are criticized (to my knowledge) for being elitist, because, even though the figures it studies are disproportionately members of elite groups, the criteria for determining who is and is not a scientist or a diplomat does not include elite status. Similarly, if intellectual historians write about argument-constructors (otherwise known, perhaps, as intellectuals), who tend to be (or are by definition) members of elite groups, then that fact alone would not make the discipline elitist.

    My second argument would be that the conception of intentionally constructed arguments is intended to be descriptive of intellectual history and not prescriptive. Thus if what intellectual historians do is in fact elitist, then we cannot wish that fact away by saying that they do something else. So the relevant question is not whether my appropriation of Appleby’s dimly-remembered phrase “makes” intellectual history elitist, but whether it is an accurate description of what intellectual historians do.

    Of course, I think it is, but my guess would be that you do not. You write that “[s]ome people make arguments, some people hear arguments, some people act on the basis of an idea embedded in an argument that is little understood,” which is obviously true. But asking “[w]here do you draw the line?” seems to suggest that all of those relationships are equally the object of intellectual history. With this claim I would disagree: the fact that a line is hard to draw does not mean that it does not exist. (Though I personally believe that today’s somewhat embattled intellectual historians lose more than they gain from drawing this line, the question of where the line belongs, should it be drawn, is a slightly different one.) Moreover, including all of these categories raises the question of why we need intellectual history at all, since cultural history seems to be doing most of those things already.

    I would argue instead that the distinction between the first and the third scenarios in your quote above is as good a descriptor as any of the difference between intellectual and cultural history. Ideas embedded in little-understood arguments are an incredibly fruitful and necessary avenue of study, but nonetheless do not, in my view, constitute intellectual history.

    An interesting case study here, I think, would be to ask, “Is Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale intellectual history?” I would say that despite telling us a great deal about Martha Ballard’s understanding of her world, it could not plausibly fit into that category. I suspect that you would say it does.

    While I wholeheartedly agree that we who identify ourselves primarily as intellectual historians need to reach out to other branches of history, I also do not want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Intellectual history must be about something that other branches of history are not about, or it has no reason to exist. What else would that object be, other than intellectuals and their arguments?

  5. Dear Mike,
    You’ve hit the nail on the head. I concede that the idea that only elites offer intentionally constructed arguments is itself elitist. The problem is not that only elites make intentionally constructed arguments, but that we tend to have much greater access to the arguments made by elites. But my main point is not really about the supposedly elitist bent of intellectual history, so I’ll make that concession to refocus my answer.

    I think where you really go to the issue was when you talk about drawing the line. You want to make sure a line could be drawn if it had to. Tim wants to know where the line is. I don’t find line-drawing a particularly meaningful exercise. You are right that I would probably have no problem calling Ulrich’s book intellectual history. I’d be just as happy with cultural history, or woman’s history, or social history even. All could equally apply, as far as I am concerned, because I just don’t see the payoff in dividing these things up. I’ll offer another example. What is Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll? Cultural history? Afro-American history? Southern history? It is precisely because it is hard to classify that it is so good. Boundary breaking scholarship ought to be the goal, as far as i am concerned.

    One final point that seems to be circling around here. You mention “today’s somewhat embattled intellectual historians.” This seems to be a recurrent theme on this blog. But can I ask, what makes intellectual historians embattled? I’ve never quite caught on to this argument. There are two major journals in intellectual history that welcome U.S. intellectual history contributions-Modern Intellectual History and Journal of the History of Ideas. If we include History and Theory, that makes three major journals. U.S. intellectual historians are in nearly every major department. I trained at Rice with Thomas Haskell before moving to UNC where Charles Capper had just left, so maybe this positive institutional context skews my perspective, but I don’t think so. There was one straight up job ad for U.S. intellectual and cultural history this year, and the field was included as a possibility in several other searches. Intellectual history is not the growth discipline that Afro-American history or women’s and gender history is. But embattled? I don’t see it. Can some one go over this again for me: why this persistent feeling of being marginalized?

  6. David,

    A few comments:

    1. I agree that embattled is not the best term to use—it’s too dramatic and implies that there are enemies. And I don’t think that “marginalized” works either: all subfields are subject to periodic marginalization. Rather, the field lacks identity and a needed esprit de corps. I firmly believe historians should have, or need to feel there is, a place to go—a home—where problems in tackling thought, philosophy, intellectuals, and big ideas in history are regularly handled. This doesn’t happen ~consistently~ in cultural history or any other subfield. From personal experience I know that cultural historians don’t ~regularly~ want to talk about pragmatism, a priori or a posteriori thought, transcendentalism, etc. I suppose I could see where those who want outlets for those topics in the context of U.S. history ~might~ feel embattled or marginalized—although like you I still don’t like those terms.

    2. Again, I don’t want to know where the line for USIH is as much as I want to carve out a regular, living, identifiable place for U.S. historians who want to study intellectual history. All written histories cross subfield boundaries, so all self-identified intellectual historians who write histories will also cross lines. This doesn’t matter. My goal in trying to identify and create this home is not driven by an impulse to exclude or build impassable barriers. The home I see as needed for U.S. intellectual history will have unlocked and open doors, as well as windows ajar and a large welcome mat for all other historians with different interests. To carry this further, at our kitchen table we happen to discuss philosophers, anti-intellectualism in American life, the history of ideas, the role of intellectuals, deep theory/philosophcy, public intellectuals, international connections, etc. Maybe the Robert Frost poem about walls and good neighbors applies?

    – TL

  7. The activity of defining intellectual history is, to me at least, just an intellectual exercise from which I have difficulty walking away. I certainly agree that, even in the best case scenario in which we all agreed on it, the definition itself would be of little value. Until that great day when people start attempting to cash in on the tremendous cachet of intellectual history by illegitimately claiming that their work represents it, I am perfectly happy to drop the topic.

    On the other issue, I would also agree with David and Tim. “Embattled” is definitely the wrong word, and I used it carelessly. But I do think that the job market, in particular, is pretty hard for those whose primary specialization is intellectual history. David’s point that “there was one straight up job ad for U.S. intellectual and cultural history this year,” underlines exactly what I meant. One is not very many, compared to the number of people in the field.

    But I also agree what I take to be Tim’s main point: that the purpose of an enterprises like this blog, our upcoming conference, etc. is to provide a positive space for U.S. intellectual history. I think we are beginning to do that, but carping about the lack of job opportunities is not terribly productive. I try not to do that in this venue, but David definitely caught me veering in that direction. Mea culpa.


  8. The job market is brutal. I’m not denying that for a moment, and since several of us are in the midst of it, it will inevitably rear its head in these kind of discussions. Actually the job market might be one location when a definition for intellectual history would be of use. I have several friends were lucky enough (if that is the word) to go on some interviews for U.S. and the world jobs. It was clear from the job ads, and became even clearer at the interviews and campus visits, that there was no agreed upon definition for a U.S. and the world job, even among the hiring department. Especially among the hiring department. The interviewees were caught in a war of definitions over what exactly the various members of the department wanted. It even came out in the interviews, with different questions predicated upon differing definitions coming from mutually antagonistic groups in the same interview.

    Anyhow, for the record, I very much look forward to “that great day when people start attempting to cash in on the tremendous cachet of intellectual history by illegitimately claiming that their work represents it.”

    Big time.

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