U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Is Intellectual History a Neglected Field? Second Take

Following up on Andrew’s excellent and comprehensive summary and analysis of the September Historically Speaking symposium on the state of the field of intellectual history, I thought I would add a few thoughts, and keep the ball rolling as we look forward to our November conference, which should ventilate all of these issues in more detail:

The excellent symposium on the state of the field holds much fascination for us (I found it engrossing), but it must be baffling to outsiders, within the discipline of history but more particularly from without. The contributors are decidedly fretful about the state of the field but there is no great theoretical or methodological controversy in dispute and the actual assessment of current conditions is quite mild: Aside from a dearth of job listings in intellectual history, there is scant evidence of a problem, as all seem to admit. Intellectual historians are being hired and are writing, many are winning awards and are prominent in the field, and there are new journals (not to mention this fabulous new blog). There even seems a consensus that the great “linguistic turn” in historical studies and the shift in disciplinary authority from intellectual history to cultural history (and the tremendous rise in importance of cultural history) has actually worked to the advantage of intellectual historians, spreading their preferred methodologies, fostering critical attention to texts and contextual analysis, and fostering the theoretical and meta-theoretical proclivities so characteristic of the intellectual historians.

What strikes me, though, is a lingering frustration at our status in the field—that cultural historians have seized the moment in a way disadvantageous to certain kinds of intellectual history, the study of “highly formalized systems of thoughts and ideas” (Wickberg), of particular thinkers and schools. Daniel Wickberg’s response is much more pointed and successful than his original essay, as he seems goaded into greater clarity and sharper formulations by his respondents. Here, he defines intellectual history as that which “foregrounds ideas, thinking, and the ways in which minds structure experience.” What really smarts is when this kind of work loses salience (although once again there seem no end of interesting titles of recent books cited by the contributors that seem to be in this vein). It is unsatisfying to me to find intellectual history being done in just about any work that considers a text or uses the “tools” of intellectual history (close reading and concern for epistemology). Good grief – what historian does not read texts closely, aside from the dustiest 1970s-vintage quantitative scholar?

Moreover, I think the defensible point of concern is not loss of status so much as a loss of purpose and ambition in the subfield of intellectual history and, here, precisely the dearth of theoretical conflict might be the point. In the famous “no directions” (to borrow McClay’s snarky line, new to me) Wingspread symposium of the 1970s, intellectual historians fretted over the marginalization of their field but also recognized a theoretical crisis, that the old way of focusing on narrow, articulate elites and such things as the climate of opinion, resulting in studies of the American Mind, or Character, or the Culture of [fill in the blank] were no longer valid or respected. Since then, of course, Theory triumphed, Cultural Studies arrived and vanquished, and many historians adorn their analysis with sophisticated allusions to the conventional nature of knowledge and the determinative force of language and often deploy theories borrowed from intellectuals rooted in affiliated disciplines—gender theorists, queer theorists, sociologists of marginality and subaltern identities and Empire, Foucault, Derrida, Habermas, Bourdieu, Zizek, and so forth. As Wilfred McClay points out in his remarks on the love of historians for historiography, internal theoretical debates and analyses of fights within fields (and within disciplines and within academia) are “catnip” to us but irrelevant and boring to many outside our fields (including, probably, more than a few undergraduate students) and outside academia. So, even as a kind of intellectual history as theory has triumphed, the older intellectual history as “a proxy for the study of all Americans” (David Hollinger’s phrase), dead in the 1970s, remains dead and has not been replaced. The symposiasts point out that the state of intellectual history reflects the generally fragmented state of the entire discipline: Subdivisions and specialization abound; ever more detailed scholarship flourishes; and meanwhile the parts still are not cohering, a center is difficult to find. As academic historians abdicate the discredited practice of writing syntheses generalizing about all Americans for an audience of all Americans, nationalist histories written often by popularizers about presidents and wars and the “greatest generation” fill the vacuum.

What distinguishes intellectual history, I think, is precisely its synthetic ambitions, its effort to make the mass of specialized historical research fit into a pattern that coheres. There’s plenty of reasons to scorn such efforts—the dreaded bias towards elite cultural production—yet an intellectual history predicated on the importance of ideas as something more than tools used by social actors otherwise shaped and pushed to exert “agency” trends that way. It may well be that the discipline is becoming organized by topics and not fields, but perhaps the synthesizing viewpoint, the way in which ideas are filtered throughout complex layers of cultural production and reproduction, can represent a legitimate topic. In my view, claiming intellectual authority to make such broad generalizations was part and parcel of the modernist intellectual tradition in twentieth-century America that spawned intellectual history, American Studies, and the tradition of cultural criticism represented by the now-gone and sometimes lamented “public intellectuals.” The roots of the field (what McClay calls “the longer past of the discipline”) included a kind of history that was itself social criticism, exemplified by a scholar like Christopher Lasch (never shy about broad generalizations) or, perhaps, John Patrick Diggins, whose memory will be hailed at our upcoming conference. In the 1970s and 1980s, intellectual historians seemed interested in studying communities of discourse (or interpretive communities), a more modest way of representing the field to a fragmenting discipline that was becoming more responsive to the claims of the marginalized and previously excluded. There still seems a project in writing these histories and then assessing the relative authority of such communities and seeing how they link together into a whole.

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Great post, Paul. Upon further reflection, I agree that the forum is strange in that there are no great theoretical or epistemological issues that animate the discussion. Some such issues are underlying, and I touched upon this at the end of my post, such as whether or not the proliferation of intellectual historical methods into the entire discipline waters down intellectual history as something proper.

    You raise a new and intriguing theoretical point in your final paragraph, one the forum discussants did not address. I agree with you wholeheartedly that intellectual history is most valuable for its “the synthesizing viewpoint…” As you write: “the way in which ideas are filtered throughout complex layers of cultural production and reproduction, can represent a legitimate topic.” And I agree that such an approach allows for history as social criticism, much in the vein of venerable historians like Christopher Lasch. My own work seeks to be in this vein of historiography. Not coincidentally, the degree to which my book has been reviewed favorably has been calibrated to the degree to which the reviewer has been familiar and/or sympathetic to this mode of historical analysis.

  2. Paul –

    Enjoying the conversation here. And the wise reflections by you and others on intellectual history as a field.

    One thought: I’m not sure cultural history is as predominant in the larger field of history as you indicate. My impression is that cultural history’s heyday as a trendy subfield has passed, replaced lately by a return to political history and the internationalization of U.S. History (U.S. and the World kind of approach). And my sense is that social history continues to play an important role in both the kinds of scholarship being done and the new jobs that get advertised — especially in the emphasis on ethnicity, gender, and the like as social-political phenomena as much as intellectual and cultural categories of representation. The social and political history focus on people and institutions now predominates so far as I can see over the cultural history (and intellectual history) focus on symbolic representation.

    In fact, I think there’s been something of a backlash against cultural history. I’m thinking here of Sean Wilentz and others who believe the field of history lost sight of the power of institutions and structures and politics in the 1980s/90s cultural turn.

    And perhaps also the backlash came out of the contemporary context of the 90s and 2000s, with the debates on the left between those committed to changing cultural politics and values and those who called for what they thought of as a return to good old-fashioned material interests and political organizing (The Thomas Frank What’s the Matter With Kansas? type position). That’s largely been an intra=left debate but, intriguingly, it seems to me some kind of similar struggle is going on on the right between hardcore cultural “values” conservatives and economic elites within the Republican Party.

    That all said, one thing you and others wrote really strikes me as accurate. Intellectual history is now less defined as a field precisely because of the proliferation of its methods to other fields. Criss-crossing with social history in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, intellectual history produced a vibrant kind of historical work concerned with ideas and representation on the one hand and actual people and institutions on the other. It’s that legacy that may prove, in the long run, to be the most significant.

    The challenge now, that both your comments and the Historically Speaking essays seem to outline, is how to refocus intellectual history as a subfield within this broader proliferation. If everyone is now doing a little bit of intellectual history in other subfields and the discipline in general, where does that leave intellectual history itself?

    This strikes me as an important question both in terms of the intellectual and methodological development of the subfield, and maybe also in terms of better defining the need for training future scholars and creating explicit positions in the subfield.

    I think in terms of this issue of redefining intellectual history in the context of its proliferation, cultural history is not the opposition. The opposition is approaches to history that resist the importance of ideas and symbolic representation to questions of power. In honoring the role of ideas, representation, and symbols, cultural and intellectual history have an enormous amount in common.

    And both are, at this juncture, at a point of reclamation and resharpening. In the face of their successes, both now face a kind of backlash, a resistance I sense among non-intellectual and non-cultural historians to what they have to offer as approaches to the past.

    Would be eager to hear what you and others think.


  3. I’ve noticed a few different patterns in intellectual history and I’m wondering if they are accurate or false categorizations. It seems like there are the types of works that are the modern _The New England Mind_, that attempt a kind of synthesis of the way some group of people were thinking at a time, as evidenced through their cultural production and consumption. In other words, there does not need to be intellectuals present for an intellectual history analysis.

    Another type of work is the analysis of intellectuals themselves–as humans, as professionals, and/or as idea producers. And then the history of ideas (which seems to be more left to philosophers).

    That first type of work could, theoretically, be done by several different sub-fields, with slightly different products. It’s less likely that a non-intellectual history, or someone not interested in intellectuals, would work on the third or fourth category.

    Do you think this is a fair division? Is one type more easily justified than another?

    The first type seems to demand more “theories” of history, while the second could be done with few abstract theories to guide one.

    I also wonder how much intellectual history crosses paths with two very well defined sub-fields (because they are often in other departments or cross-listed)– the history of science and the history of education.

  4. So many great topics of discussion. I’d like to briefly address just one, brought up by Lauren, who asks how much intellectual history crosses paths with educational history. You rightly refer to educational history as a well defined sub-field. There are several major societies dedicated to educational history, including the best known, History of Education Society (HES). The annual HES meeting is in a few weeks in Philadelphia, where I’m presenting a paper. Going by this, HES seems to welcome intellectual history of the sort I do–the production and dissemination of ideas, often but not always by intellectuals. And this seems like a rational fit, since education is nothing if not the production and dissemination of ideas.

    That said, I would say that intellectual history is an outlier for most educational historians, who don’t think it gives us any insight into what happens in the classroom, or over how the schools shape society with regards to race and gender, still very hot topics among educational historians.

    Why is this the case? This answer to this question, of course, is complex and varied. In part I think it’s because many educational historians are located in colleges of education, where scholars often develop inferiority complexes relative to their colleagues in history departments, and thus focus on things that seem hyper-relevant, such as race and gender. Intellectual history hardly ever fits the category of hyper-relevant, or at least hasn’t for four or five decades.

    But there are other reasons. Scholars ensconced in schools of education will obviously be more attuned to histories of educational institutions, or of educational leaders, or even of educational policies–the types of things their non-historian colleagues pay attention to. As Scott Henderson wrote in a favorable review of my book in the HES journal “History of Education Quarterly”: “During the past forty years, scholars have traced the development of particular school systems, charted the lives of pedagogical pioneers, and described the evolution and implementation of state, local, and federal educational policies. To date, however, there have been few intellectual histories of American education.” Institutional inertia does not point to intellectual history, per se.

  5. I have been late to contribute again to this thread, so I hope there’s still a bit of life in it.

    I’m still intrigued by this debate, in no small degree by the slipperiness of the topic. It is hard to wrap our minds around just what it is that represents a “crisis” in the field of intellectual history, let alone what the field is. For example, Lauren speculates on whether there is a vital distinction to be made between the *New England Mind* style of Perry Miller intellectual history and focused studies on intellectuals in various dimensions (personally, as professionals, etc.). I think the Miller-style generalizations about the “mind” of New England (or America, or whatever)
    are out of style because of the false totalizing involved. In fact, Miller did focus on intellectuals exclusively on the assumption that this elite represented the mind. That will not fly after the cultural turn, as we are ambitious now to use other sorts of historical evidence to get at popular vs. elite opinion, and no one is interested in generalizing about broadly shared “minds” anymore.

    As Michael suggests, though, and I think it is a good point, we ought not to pit intellectual history against cultural history, as they are both fields willing to consider the historical primacy of ideas per se. Better to get at why some scholars see the claim that ideas themselves are important forces in historical change as invalid. He makes the intriguing suggestion that there might be a link to contemporary political analysis, which has shown an aversion to the politics of culture in favor of returning to a focus on the material conditions that structure our market, create inequality, etc. Michael cites Thomas Frank’s recent polemic about benighted Kansans, although I think Frank himself would be very amenable to intellectual history. After all, he has done cultural history in the form of analyzing the manipulation of “cool” by corporate ad men in the postwar era, and he has studied the business appropriation of the discourse of personal liberation and rebellion. A better example might be Sean Wilentz. His recent major work on the rise of democracy is striking for its traditional political history armature; he does not ignore ideas at all — but he scarcely has any use for what was once an obsession within the field of American history: the obsessively recorded variations of a republican (as opposed to liberal) political language that scholars so painstakingly retrieved and then promoted from the 1960s through the 1980s. There’s a bit of fatigue here, maybe — and the result is a type of political history done via social history sensibilities not intellectual history ones.

  6. I was long-winded: I have even more to say!

    It all makes me wonder if there is not a general aversion to such things as the “republican synthesis” — a burning out, after so much focus on the “ideological” origins of the revolution and so forth. There has been a “death of theory” in literary studies, supposedly, so maybe we are seeing that death, too, in our discipline, with intellectual historians as innocent bystanders, taking the blow along with our theoretical soulmates. Although intellectual history has often been about theory — and there has been an affinity for theoretical reflection within the subfield of intellectual history — I do think they are distinct. Intellectual historians dabble in historiographical theory and social theory, but often intellectual history can be done well enough without it. It is social and cultural history which seemed esp. theory-driven to me. What has faded, perhaps, is theory. And, to be fair, perhaps, too, the kind of intellectual history concerned so much with re-creating “discourses” (as in the republican discourse, or the discourse of pragmatism) and then assuming great historical influence for these discourses.

    Andrew’s commentary on the resistance of peers in history of education both to intellectual history (that is, it is welcomed but as an exotic visitor) and to history-as-social-criticism is intriguing. I think individual subfields must develop their own intellectual/ideological preferences. I do not know why history of education should be allergic to intellectual history; communicating ideas, as Andrew indicates, seems what it’s all about. Southern history–a subfield in which I have been entangled occasionally–has no such problem. A predilection for thinking the South an “idea” in and of itself goes far back–at least to the mid-twentieth-century with W. J. Cash’s “Mind of the South.” A different field, a different historical development, shaped no doubt by the particular histories and intellectual proclivities of its practitioners.

    One final thought: Perhaps there is a lingering suspicion of intellectual history (esp. one that becomes itself a kind of cultural criticism) because it fails to match the rigor of social history in some people’s minds: less reliance on archival work (in some work), less combing through records for bits of data to assemble into tables and charts, less scrutinizing of complex series of correspondence, cables, memos, etc. Think of Richard Hofstadter as an exemplar of the field: He has since been studied as an intellectual in his own right, but he was once a premier historian of America whose methodology entailed a close analysis of published writings of all sorts (high and low, elite’s speeches and popular pamphlets). I wonder if his work is now dismissed as sort of a fatty treat: urbane, sophisticated, rich in generalization and implication but too often sacrificing nuance and meticulous attention to historical context in favor of the provocative, ironic summary judgment?

  7. This is a great discussion. I think the point Michael touches on about a return to institutional history is sound. At the same time, I think many of the most insightful of these works have been informed by the cultural turn, especially with how categories such as race, gender, and citizenship are constructed and “made visible” by the state. I’m thinking here of books like Mai Ngai’s Impossible Subjects, briefly discussed by Igo in the symposium, which does a superb job documenting the way the federal government created and naturalized the concept of the “illegal” immigrant in federal policy during the twentieth century. More recent examples include Margot Canaday’s The Straight State, which does similar work on the question of federal policy and the construction of the hetero-homosexual binary. A related move, which seems to take account of the cultural turn, but tries to make its guiding themes more concrete, is to highlight questions of political economy. Andrew and Igo both mention “Poverty Knowledge” as a good example of an intellectual history that takes ideas seriously, but makes government policy and economic developments a central part of the drama. In early American labor history, a book such as Seth Rockman’s Scraping By, uses the insights of social and cultural history to discuss the lives of various groups of White, African American, and women laborers in post-revolutionary Baltimore, but avoids any romantic generalizations about “labor republicanism” and instead focuses on the daily (often excruciatingly difficult)struggles of such workers. Perhaps this return to a focus on state power and political economy (informed by questions of culture) can be seen as a way to help unify the incredibly diverse set of questions raised by social and cultural historians since at least the 1970s? Maybe what I see as a synthesis between institutional and cultural history also speaks to Michael’s point about debates on the left between culturalists and socialists (for lack of better terms) during the 1990s?

  8. I have composed a long commentary on the forum independent of this thread. But since I’ve done that (waiting to edit and decide how to integrate at USIH), I want to comment on some points here.

    Paul: You mentioned “scant evidence of a problem,” but even the sanguine Igo admitted at the end of her piece that *identity issues* remain in the subfield. And, in relation to Wickberg’s rejoinder, I believe he is pointing toward a theoretical problem. He believes that ideas are discussed in recent books (many classified as cultural-social history), but that it’s still unacceptable to promote even a new, restrained history of ideas among colleagues (foregrounding ideas), even intellectual historians in some cases (maybe Hollinger?). And the history of ideas could be precisely the theory, or philosophy of history, that could help unite and strengthen the subfield.

    AH: I think that Wickberg is precisely forwarding in his rejoinder a revised history of ideas as a theoretical starting point. This could help bind intellectual history as an interdisciplinary subfield to other historians and other scholars.

    Michael: Ditto your line on “honoring the role” in your 2nd to last paragraph. Well said. And I agree with your sense of some kind of a backlash against cultural history (i.e. cultural history has become so big and inclusive that id’ing as a cultural historian says almost nothing about your work).

    Lauren: I like your tripartite division (I didn’t see a fourth). Despite Paul’s objection to your example, there does exist a category of intellectual history with lots of cultural history cross-over. The differences become brighter when we deal with specific intellectuals (formal systems of thought) and the history of ideas. And my experience with the history of education agrees with Andrew. So, seconded on that front.

    Julian: Thanks for spotlighting some more books.

    – TL

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