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.