U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Do Intellectual Historians and Philosophers Play Well Together?

Last month, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an interesting interview (for the moment at least available online to non-subscribers) with the Harvard sociologist Michèle Lamont, whose new book How Do Professors Think examines multidisciplinary peer-review panels and compares the different ways in which the various American academic disciplines understand themselves and what constitutes quality work.

At the end of the interview, Lamont briefly summarizes some of her conclusions, beginning with two disciplines of interest to this blog’s small exclusive readership:

In history there is a high degree of consensus among scholars about what is good. But it is not based so much on a common theory, or method, or whether people think the discipline is part of the humanities or social sciences. It’s a shared sense of craftsmanship. People care about whether the work is careful. They believe they can identify careful work. And that they can convince others about it. The degree of consensus has varied over the years. In the 1960s, for example, the discipline was polarized politically. But it has found consensus in the practice of scholarship.

Historians believe that contrasts sharply with English literature. As one told me, “The disciplinary center holds.” That sense of consensus makes history proposals and applicants very successful in multidisciplinary competitions like the national fellowship and grant programs.

Philosophy is a problem discipline, and it’s defined as such by program officers. Philosophers do not believe that nonphilosophers are qualified to evaluate their work. Perhaps that comes out of the dominance of analytic philosophy, with its stress on logic and rigor. Philosophers think their discipline is more demanding than other fields. Even its practitioners define the discipline as contentious. They don’t see that as a problem; argument and dispute are the discipline’s defining characteristics.

All that conflict makes it difficult to get consensus on the value of a philosophy proposal — or to convince people from other disciplines of its merits. The panels I studied are multidisciplinary. Nonphilosophers are often frustrated with the philosophers. They often discounted what philosophers had to say as misplaced intellectual superiority.

The Lamont interview has sparked an interesting discussion of philosophers (inside and outside of philosophy departments) and their relationship to their discipline and other disciplines over on Crooked Timber, a site which has always featured a robust philosophy presence among its posters and commentariat.* Much of the discussion focuses on Lamont’s contention that philosophers don’t get along with other scholars and that there is an unusual lack of mutual understanding between philosophy and other disciplines.

I’m always interested in the relationship between intellectual historians and philosophers (and philosophy). Many, if not most of us, spend much of our time reading philosophers from the past. Certainly any intellectual historian has spent a lot of time thinking about philosophy. However the level of actual engagement between contemporary philosophers and U.S. intellectual historians seems rather limited to me. Among the more analytically inclined philosophers, there’s still a strong “history of philosophy, just say ‘no'” strain that makes them disinclined to be interested not only in historical accounts of philosophical thought, but also in older philosophy even taken out of its historical context.**

At last year’s USIH Conference, David Marshall of Kettering University gave an interesting talk on the methodological lessons that intellectual historians might take from the work of the philosopher Robert Brandom. I was struck by how unusual it is to hear an intellectual historian–especially, it must be said, a U.S. intellectual historian–explicitly draw on the work of a contemporary philosopher in this way (my purely anecdotal sense is that European intellectual historians have a more lively interface with contemporary Continental philosophers).

How would you describe the current relationship between U.S. intellectual history as a (sub) discipline and philosophy? Do you find yourself turning to contemporary philosophy in your own work (and do you do so as an object of study or for some other reason)? If you work on philosophy/philosophers, do you share your work with actually existing philosophers? Are they helpful readers?***


* I assume most readers of this blog already read CT. If you don’t, you should. It is an excellent multidisciplinary group academic blog which more often than not features not only interesting posts but also interesting comment threads. You really learn stuff over there.

** Princeton philosopher Gil Harman used to have a sign on his office door that read “History of Philosophy: Just Say ‘No'” It was intended as a protest against philosophers being required to study the history of philosophy. Harman believed that philosophers needn’t study the history of philosophy for the same reason that physicists needn’t study the history of physics: today’s philosophers were often asking different questions and almost by definition had better answers than philosophers from the past. In a 2005 volume entitled Analytic Philosophy and History of Philosophy, which he coedited with G.A.J. Rogers, Tom Sorrell uses Gil Harman’s sign as a starting point for his reflections on the place of history of philosophy in analytic philosophical practice.

*** Upon reflection, I fear that the conclusion of this post reflects the fact that I’ve spent most of the past two weeks giving and grading exams! Please consider outlining your answers before posting them 😉

14 Thoughts on this Post

  1. As a philosophy M.A.(and B.A.), with an American studies Ph.D., who teaches in History departments, I find the relationship between philosophy, history and interdisciplinarity to be nothing short of exasperating. Like the bartender in The Blues Brothers whose club, in featuring country and western, has “both kinds” of music, hiring committees and grant reviewers who espouse the virtues of interdisciplinarity, in my experience, usually seem to be looking for some combination of history and literature, with perhaps some room for anthropology and a few other disciplines. One seldom thinks of economics, political science, psychology or many other fields as being all that relevant to the typical notion of interdisciplinarity. And this is certainly true with regard to philosophy: its questions and its method hold little interest for those in other fields, and philosophy is very much “off to the side” with regard to the mainstream thinking in the humanities.

    Philosophers themselves certainly share some of the blame for this: they have little interest in disciplines outside of their own. The wider culture has mocked and dismissed philosophers ever since Thales fell down a well while looking at the stars, so the discipline is not all that concerned with expressing itself to the populace either. Mainly, though, I think that other disciplines are simply not interested in philosophy, and have little respect for its method. As a result, it seems terribly foreign and not worth the trouble to incorporate into other disciplinary matrices.

    Coming from philosophy to an interdisciplinary field, I was initially quite taken aback at how free-associational much interdisciplinary work is. (I will never forget a talk I saw at the American Studies Association conference at which a speaker said, “Ever since I got here everyone’s been talking about Tocqueville this and Tocqueville that. I think it’s all bullshit!” She did not perceive a need to either identify “it” or issue a more specific criticism, but simply went on to whatever she had been talking about.) I finally settled into history because a) I did recognize and appreciate the rigor and professionalism noted by Lamont, and b) I found that the idea of the old-school field that won’t let its practitioners break out of rigid disciplinary boundaries was mostly a straw-man.

    Intellectual history is a pretty comfortable place for me personally, but it is quite different from philosophy. Its practitioners do not primarily read philosophers, for one thing. They are also less concerned with evaluating (rather than clarifying) the ideas of those they study, and more interested with finding and tracing the influence of those ideas. These are substantially different concerns and objects of study. I would think, though, that the two should be able to find more common ground than, perhaps, they currently do.

  2. For the 2007-2008 year I was on a postdoc where one of my closest associates was a philosopher who specialized in pragmatism. I found both a lot of common ground and a level of rigor that was really refreshing, but we also had several moments of interdisciplinary incomprehensibility. On several occasions on reading my work, he would want me to, in effect, interact with the people whose thought I was explaining, not simply in an analytical way, to tease out their thought, but to evaluate it for cogency or to note when they made an unpersuasive leap. It wasn’t so much that I was opposed to that, but there were occasions when it simply did not fit my rhetorical purpose or narrative strategy. When I said so, it became clear that we had come to a conflict in the habitus our of respective disciplines.

    I thought in reading Lamont’s piece that she had it exactly right in describing philosophy as a problem oriented discipline. The difficulty in incorporating a problem oriented mode of thinking into history is that, although we do have problems in history, we engage those problems through oblique narratives–or at least I do. In favoring narrative, it is difficult to incorporate anything that a philosopher might think is useful. One solution is that of Anthony LaVopa in his intellectual biography of Fichte. Basically, he breaks the narrative in order to delve deeply into an aspect of Fichte’s philosophy before resuming. Another approach is that of Louis Menand in The Metaphysical Club, where he interweaves philosophical analysis with narrative, though as I understand it many philosophers look down upon Menand’s work. If it is true that philosophers of pragmatism look down on Menand’s work, that suggests to me the limits of the engagement of intellectual history with philosophy, since I think Menand’s work is a model of what intellectual historians might do.

  3. P.S. To answer one of the final questions that Ben posed, I do turn to contemporary philosophy in order to help me think through my own work and not as an object of study. Since I write on the past role of religion in promoting a specifically Christian morality in law, I read moral philosophy (especially Michael Walzer along with others), some in the philosophy of law (especially Robert Cover) and some in the philosophy of religion. I hope to read more in the future, because it seems to me that reading philosophy can help us in formulating our research questions, as much as interacting with philosophers can help us in clarifying our thought and claims. As to whether or not they are interested in what we have to say, I doubt that many are.

  4. One key difference, and I think a revealing one, is how contemporary intellectual historians treat contemporary philosophy. I was just thinking about this the other day, and it occurred to me that while courses on pre-20th century intellectual history are lousy with philosophers (Hobbes, Locke, Spinoza, Leibniz, Rousseau, Smith, Kant, Hume, Hegel, Nietzche, Marx), once you get to the last century, the philosophy tends to drop out, or if not drop out, diverge.

    What you see is an emphasis on so-called continental philosphy, so the likes of Heidegger and Sartre will be present, alongside the Foucaults, Derridas, Baudrillards, Frankfurt Scholars, postmodernists, post-structuralists, et al. But you’d be hard pressed to find a syllabus on 20th-century intellectual history with names like McTaggart, Kripke, Nagel, Ayer, Quine, Russell, Frege, Wittegenstein, Anscombe, and so on, on it.

    In other words, what you find is a lot of stuff that is popular with literary theoretical, cultural studies, etc. approaches to the subject. But which philosophers working in the analytic tradition (the dominant tradition in the anglophone world) absolutely DESPISE and do not consider to be even pretend philosophy. They think this stuff is rubbish, and since they don’t take it seriously, don’t take people who study it or (even worse) employ it in their work seriously, either. Hence it’s probably true that there’s more engagement between European intellectual historians and contemporary philosophers, but the lack of such engagement here is not as much an accident as it might appear to be.

    As someone who studies a period (the Enlightenment) that has been subject to many a Foucauldian or Frankfurter analysis, I can’t say I really blame philosophers for their disdain. A lot of that stuff is crap. It’s fine for intellectual historians to stick to it; that’s their prerogative. But again, it’s the philosphers’ prerogative to refuse to have anything to do with it, and those who do.

  5. Well, I feel like I’m entering this a bit late due to all the comments at Crooked Timber. So I’ll address some things randomly.

    1. I disagree with Lamont’s contention about the common ground of historians, but agree with her assessment of the dominance of analytic philosophy among professional philosophers. On historians, careful work is decidedly ~not~ always the same as smart work, and smart work involves some degree of theorizing/philosophy. It can be midstream, in the story, or in an a priori way, but it happens. I detest the distinction, by the way, between “theory” and “philosophy”—as if both are not high thinking, i.e. philosophizing. To me, some philosophers are more discursive, and others more prone to using symbols for analysis. Which brings me back to my agreement with Lamont: the proclivity of analytical thinkers to use symbols rather than plain speech is a hindrance to their usefulness to the world. If their works of analysis are not always getting the notice they deserve, it’s because analytic philosophers care little for communicating it well, or even at all, to non-specialists unfamiliar with their jargon. Per Mike’s sense, and apparently David’s singular experience, I have known one professional philosopher who indeed took pride in his un-communicability, pridefully thinking it a sign of his high intelligence and/or my (and others) lack thereof. Those folks, to me, are just jerks. The shame is that intellectual historians apparently value and want relationships with philosophers, as attested by our three experiences. But maybe we all chose wrong?

    2. And this is sad because I agree with Ben, and his citation of Brandom, that we could benefit from moderate to extensive engagements with contemporary philosophers. For instance, I never had a reason to read or even think about Rawls until about two years ago. But then I encountered him all over the place. This happened in a sustained way in my review of Blacker’s Democratic Education Stretched Thin. That book forced me to confront Rawls, Walzer, and even Blacker himself in an attempt to think through equality and our U.S. education institutions over the past 30-40 years. It was good for me, and I’m infinitely happy I challenged myself with the review.


  6. (cont.)

    3. In contrast to Mike’s comment, and in concert with Ben’s notion that many of us spend time reading past philosophers, I read the work of dead philosophers every day—happily. I’m currently on a 2-3 article-per-question snail’s pace reading of Aquinas Summa Theologica (Part I). I also keep track of 4-5 philosophy blogs via GoogleReader. I consider this critical to keeping me sharp both intellectually and with regard to periodical in-depth engagements with historical philosophical issues in covering Adler, his friends, the great books, education, UIC history topics, and 20th century U.S. issues. In my view, and I’ve stated this before at USIH, I think all who practice intellectual history, the history of ideas, or the history of philosophy, should read philosophy consistently. I plan to read—word-for-word—Copleston’s 13-or-so-volume history of philosophy in Western civilization. I consider those works an invaluable part of my home library.

    On a related note, I’ve found intellectual history and the history of philosophy to be distinct animals. I’ve only known Bruce Kuklick, and perhaps Menand (depending on how one classifies him by discipline, per Dave’s comment), to recently move between the two. Indeed, while perusing tomes at UIC’s library a few days back, I (re)discovered the LC classifies both subjects different. The history of philosophy in the U.S. is roughly LC 850-60, and 890. I forget intellectual history’s classification, but E 160ish keeps coming to mind—alongside cultural history. My rediscovery of this different shelf came while looking up William Goetzmann’s collection of edited essays, The American Hegelians (the object of a separate discussion in relation to Goetzmann’s new book and his snarky, self-promoting HNN article on the same). That same shelf caused me to pick up the Schlesinger/White edited collection, Paths of American Thought (1963), which I think I somehow avoided reading for my doctoral field exams. I also checked out W.H. Werkmeister’s A History of Philosophical Ideas in America (1949)—the title clearly connecting this to the old-school History of Ideas—a much maligned and (overly, in my view) detested purportedly acontextual field of history. We’ll see.

    4. Mike’s anecdote about the free-associational “work” of some un-named interdisciplinary fields explains why I avoided a few of those fields for my graduate work. But the funny thing is that I still have a deep and soft spot in my heart FOR interdisciplinary work. I’m a bit hard on transnationalism—interdisciplinary work by another name—but I deeply admire well-done work in that field and in other cross-discipline endeavors. I hold it to a (too) high standard, I suppose.

    …I think that’s it—for now. – TL

  7. Ben: By the way, I’m getting, post haste, a copy of that Sorrell/Rogers book you cited. It’s right up my alley, and I’m sorry I missed it with regard to a recent piece I finished. -TL

  8. I just want to clarify that my colleague in philosophy during that postdoc was someone whose work I admire and who was interested in my work. So in response to Tim’s #1 above, I wasn’t trying to say that the experience of interdisciplinary conversation with my friend was a bad one at all–just that with all interdisciplinary conversation that there were differences in instinct, procedure, and intellectual goal that arose out of our different disciplines. He also works in American philosophy and on pragmatism, which most analytic philosophers disdain, for what that is worth.

  9. There is a strong, recent tradition of engagement with philosophy recently surrounding the revival of pragmatism. Many historians became very involved in engaging such thinkers as Richard Rorty (whether philosophers accepted him, or whether he considered himself a philosopher, are other issues) and took the problems posed by pragmatism and neo-pragmatism seriously as problems in intellectual history and as points of view in the theory of history. In fact, it seems to me we might fruitfully class intellectual historians into two schools: Those doing the kind of tracing of influences of ideas referenced earlier by David and those not only doing this but also engaging in broader theoretical discussions taking place across the disciplines, thus becoming both historians of, but also critics and peers of, contemporary theorists such as Habermas–or Rorty.

    A good artifact of the Rorty debates that happens to be in front of me is John Pettegrew, ed., A Pragmatist’s Progress? Richard Rorty and American Intellectual History (2000). Read the first essay by James Kloppenberg and you are into a historically informed engagement with dominant interdisciplinary trends in American thought.

    It may well be that analytical philosophers have (happily) marginalized themselves, both from a popular audience and from the mainstream of American intellectual life.

    There is a strong, cross-field tradition in the American historical profession of theoretical and methodological engagement and introspection across disciplines that is robust, and often on display in theoretical contributions to the American Historical Review and more specialized journals. Indeed, historians have a tradition of panting after theoretical contributions from economics, literary study, sociology, anthropology, and philosophy (Foucault? Ever heard of him?) eagerly and obsessively, often a bit after the curve and hanging on well past the “sell by” date.

  10. Thanks for this post; I think this is a really interesting issue…

    In After Virtue, contemporary philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre wrote:

    “We all too often still treat the moral philosophers of the past as contributors to a single debate with a relatively unvarying subject-matter, treating Plato and Hume and Mill as contemporaries both of ourselves and of each other. This leads to an abstraction of these writers from the cultural and social milieus in which independence from the rest of the culture. Kant ceases to be a part of the history of Prussia, Hume is no longer a Scotsman. . . . Empirical history is one thing, philosophy quite another. But are we right in understanding the division between academic disciplines in the way that we conventionally do?”

    MacIntyre is a philosopher who argues that philosophy has a lot to learn from (intellectual) history and who uses history to build his arguments. As someone on the history side, I appreciate MacIntyre’s approach and am often bothered by philosophers’ ahistorical jumping from, say, Plato to Thomas Jefferson to Hannah Ardent. On the other hand, might historians also have something to gain from learning to see different thinkers “as contemporaries both of ourselves and of each other”? I think it can add a certain richness or help us develop new insights to look– if only for a moment– at the history of ideas in this ahistorical way. Would you agree?

  11. Thirty years ago, there was an NEH/ASA six-week summer seminar on the Newtonian and Darwinian Revolutions in American Thought. Bruce Kuklick and Murray Murphey were the key organizers. David Hollinger lectured there for 3 weeks, and James Hoopes and I were among the participants (consisting of historians, literary critics and philosophers). I recall Bruce K. remarking that Quentin Skinner was one of the most brilliant people he had encountered. Suffice it to say, there was much talk about Skinner and his work. Now, to your question and concern. I think what some of us took away from that seminar was a fascination with context, especially in terms of how philosophy must be anchored within its context(s). That would include, as Skinner emphasized, understanding that language and concepts must be analyzed first as they were understood at the time. And that philosophy is basically about the questions, more than the answers, that are proposed. This fed in nicely, especially in the work of Hollinger, (and with less impressiveness in my own work) on how discourse functioned. But Skinner’s notions, which I think were philosophically AND historically valuable, soon took a back seat to the challenges and different notions about Discourse that soon issued forth from Foucault. That changed the game in terms of the relationship between history and philosophy.
    George Cotkin
    Cal Poly

  12. Wow, what a fascinating discussion. I just stumbled across this blog and after reading this post and the comments I forgot I was reading blog and thought I was reading a journal.

    With that said, I’ll still give my unqualified opinion (I’m a history enthusiast, not a historian).

    Why can’t the two fields operate under an overlapping fields of influence model? Philosophers come up with questions of historical importance to ask, and to do so they must do some history as well as philosophy. And historians find the answers to those questions (even if the final answer is, “Insufficient data”), and to do that they have to do some philosophy.

    The reason I suggest this approach is I recently read a series of articles by cultural historians debating the use of evolutionary psychology when interpreting social trends. None of the historians advocated becoming biologists, only employing the biologists’ body of knowledge in answering historical questions.

    OK, that’s my unqualified opinion. But since I have a group of intellectual historians who are likely to read to this (hmm, this is like asking for free medical advice when you meet an MD a party), wasn’t Cicero a moral philosopher who borrowed from the work historians (given that they were pre-modern historical method) when he wrote “de Officii?” Could that be an early example of the historian and the philosopher in an overlapping field of influence model?

    Thank you,


  13. I’m finding this discussion disorienting. I had a great undergrad training in analytic philosophy at a top institution before grad training in intellectual history elsewhere, and I remember fondly taking great college classes on Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche; having to miss a class on Being and Time in order to take a class on Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, and then having the Wittgenstein scholar heavily encourage me to read Rorty, Iris Murdoch, Stanley Cavell, even Heidegger. I also remember the positivists who were convinced that Derrida knew nothing and Freud was wrong and that the history of philosphy was for second-rate minds. Their very crankery encouraged me all the more to discover the wonders of Freud and Derrida.

    My point is: Why do the analytic philosophers who want to pour hot oil on strangers who study “continental philosophy” get all the attention here from us US intellectual historians? And why in the world are US intellectual historians, or at least some commentators here, so uninterested in thinking with (not necessarily agreeing with) the “continental philosophers” who take very historical approaches to philosophizing, rather than the problem-centered approach of analytical philosophy? Adorno’s very early book on Kierkegaard, for example, is a really interesting approach to intellectual history.

  14. Dear Anon 6/4/09, 10:05 pm:

    Question: Do you find the comments disorienting, or the article itself? I think the former, but I’m not 100 percent sure.

    I ask because I’m not sure that all analytic philosophers pour hot oil on those who study continental philosophy. That’s a generalization I’m neither prepared nor qualified to make. My beef is with the prevailing analytic bent in professional philosophy and its propensity to use symbols over plain, or even specialized, English in communicating their ideas. It makes it tough for storytellers who want to incorporate recent philosophy into their work and thinking. This is where I found agreement with Lamont, as expressed in point #1 of my comments above.

    I would add to this by saying that intellectual historians, of the U.S. or otherwise, might have something to offer philosophers as well in terms of broadening the discussion, making historical connections, and reaching new audiences. But history is deceptive in that it looks easy to the outside observer: cite the past with dates, get your names right, show change over time, and voila! No big deal. Professional historians certainly do those things, at a minimum, but they also: compare interpretations (of those with different philosophical approaches to the subject), remember connections, dig for more sources, consider multiple people and groups, and try to speak to larger audiences (when possible–e.g. avoiding jargon).

    – TL

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