U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Is Intellectual History a Neglected Field of Study? (Historically Speaking forum)

This month’s edition of Historically Speaking, the monthly magazine of The Historical Society, includes a forum on intellectual history (accessible through Project Muse, carried by most academic libraries). The Historical Society was founded over ten years ago on the premise that the traditional sub-disciplines of intellectual, political, economic, and diplomatic history were important and deserved better treatment than given in the larger societies, where it was believed these fields were neglected because they were not as politically correct as social and cultural history. Although The Historical Society has changed somewhat, and in my opinion is less distinguishable from the older historical associations, Historically Speaking sees fit to address whether or not these older fields of study remain neglected. It will run similar panel discussions on the other “neglected” fields in the future. This, on intellectual history, is its first.

The title of the forum suggests the conversation will not be limited by national boundaries, but all four panelists—Daniel Wickberg, David Hollinger, Sarah Igo, and Wilfred McClay—are Americanists, much to the benefit of U.S. intellectual history enthusiasts. Wickberg initiates the collegial forum with a provocative essay titled, “Is Intellectual History a Neglected Field of Study?” His answer is an ambivalent and qualified yes.

Wickberg first examines the ways in which intellectual history is alive and well. Even though the social history takeover of the discipline pushed intellectual history to the margins—because it was supposedly “concerned with phenomena largely irrelevant to the ‘real’ substance of history: material conditions, economic interests, the social relations of everyday life”—Wickberg argues that the cultural and linguistic turns brought intellectual history back to the mainstream. Because historians became more aware of the power of language, “the intellectual historian’s skills in readings texts, analyzing arguments, and contextualizing ideas had a kind of renewed value…” Thus, intellectual history remains viable, but mostly subsumed under the category of cultural history.

Even though Wickberg is enthusiastic about the fact that the habits of mind of the intellectual historian are central to the overarching discipline, he laments that intellectual history is not bracketed off institutionally. He thinks this is bad for intellectual history, and for the larger discipline, which needs intellectual history. This is the paradox that drives his analysis.

Wickberg presents several pieces of evidence, mostly impressionistic, that seem to prove intellectual history is neglected. First, he points to the “anti-intellectualism of the intellectuals,” by whom he means by the social historians. “If some intellectual historians can justly be accused of over-identifying with their objects of study, with granting significance to thinking in history because they think about history, some social historians can equally be found guilty of compensating for their own elite status by insisting that ideas and thinkers are not important to history at all.”

Some other points that speak to the neglect of intellectual history: the poor coverage of intellectual history in American survey courses; the lack of jobs specifically defined as intellectual history; the departmental marginalization of intellectual historians who do manage to get hired; and the lack of a strong institutional presence, such as a society of our own.

On this last note, Wickberg points to encouraging signs, such as the renewed vigor on display in the journals of intellectual history, specifically Modern Intellectual History and The Journal of the History of Ideas. “Perhaps more significantly,” he writes, “a younger group of U.S. intellectual historians, consisting of recent Ph.D.’s and graduate students, has initiated a blog in U.S. history.” (That would be us.) “The same group has put together an annual conference in U.S. intellectual history. The first meeting was, by all reports, very successful, and the second meeting will likely have occurred by the time this appears in print.” (Close, but not quite.) “That the initiative… has been taken by younger historians is significant; it suggests that the field has a strong future.”

Not that I am posting this review merely to give ourselves a pat on the back, but… in his reply to Wickberg, Wilfred McClay also praises the work we have done. “I, too, have noticed that some of the most interesting and imaginative in the cohort of younger scholars are being drawn to the study of intellectual history. Indeed, one could plausibly argue that it is in fact the young, such as the creators of the U.S. Intellectual History blog and conference to which Wickberg refers, who are leading the way. What makes their dedication so impressive, and moving, is the fact that these are precisely the ones who have the most to lose professionally, in a precarious time of shrinking jobs and disappearing venues, but who are taking up the cause of intellectual history’s future in the teeth of all this discouragement. Something more than careerism or opportunism must be motivating them. What could it be, other than the love of the subject?”

Not that I am one to disagree with such high praise. Indeed, I know for a fact that none of us write for this blog for reasons of careerism or opportunism. But, I would argue that informally institutionalizing our sub-discipline has been highly productive. It has helped us to define and redefine our creative labors as U.S. intellectual historians, with colleagues who want us to succeed, because they want to advance the sub-discipline.

Perhaps this is the point of Wickberg’s desire for institutionalization, of his wishes that intellectual history be seen as an entity to itself. Why is this necessary? “Because intellectual historians are trained to think of ideas as historical objects that are contexts for other ideas—to think of ideas as environments as well as tools—they bring something more than a method or set of approaches to a historical problem; they bring a distinctive perspective.” This is the rationale for intellectual history.

Wickberg writes the above passage in his final response to the three replies from Hollinger, McClay and Igo. He is specifically referring to Igo’s optimism that we need not fret over the lack of institutional space for intellectual history, since intellectual historical methods have conquered the entire discipline. Igo points especially to authors of significant works in her field of study—policy history—as being in the grain of intellectual history without being called as such, such as Alice O’Conner’s Poverty Knowledge. This seems to be the most significant point of contention in the entire forum, as the participants mostly preach to the choir.

Hollinger thinks intellectual history is much better off than Wickberg, and lists dozens of important recent books to prove it. In fact, all of the authors reel off impressive lists of recent books, including one written by our own Ben Alpers, Dictators, Democracy, and American Public Culture: Envisioning the Totalitarian Enemy, 1920s -1950s. But Hollinger laments that, although intellectual historians might get jobs, they do not get jobs as intellectual historians. We have to sell ourselves as something different. Furthermore: “What I find most troubling is the tendency of many departments to suppose that period-defined jobs, such as 19th Century, or U.S. since 1945, or Colonial, are more appropriately filled with social historians than by intellectual or political historians.” But he is hopeful: “This tendency may represent something of a behavioral lag, since there is so much evidence, outside the hiring process, for renewed engagement with the contributions of intellectual history.” Let us hope so.

There are many other topics covered in the forum. McClay, for example, argues that being forced to the margins has helped intellectual historians rethink the big intellectual historical questions, and get away from studies of the inane. And all of the authors touch upon the differences and similarities of intellectual and cultural history. They all agree that what was once called intellectual history, prior to the rise of social history, was similar to what now goes by cultural history. That is, in its heyday, intellectual history was about both elite thinkers and cultural structures of feeling. To this end, it might not be worth the effort to delineate differences between intellectual and cultural history. Wickberg disagrees, since he thinks the study of a system of ideas, the types of systems worked out by intellectuals—“high” intellectual history—is worthy of historical attention as apart from popular discourses. This might be a good topic for further discussion—I know the writers of this blog have different views on this issue.

In sum, I highly recommend everyone read the panel. I suspect similar conversations will continue at our conference in November.