U.S. Intellectual History Blog

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Reflections On Historically Speaking‘s Forum About The State Of U.S. Intellectual History

(Part I of III)

by Tim Lacy

I first received word of Historically Speaking‘s forum in August. The prospect excited me both for its topic (of course) and the participants: Daniel Wickberg, David A. Hollinger, Sarah E. Igo, and Wilfred M. McClay. It is not every day that advanced and senior historians in intellectual history choose to wrap their minds around this peculiar subfield, whether assessing the United States variety or otherwise. I am grateful for each contributor’s effort, and that Historically Speaking took on the topic.

The forum did not disappoint. The contributions touched on a great many issues for the U.S. branch of intellectual history. Apart from simple topical relevance, every essay held persuasive points. Indeed, Wickberg noted in his final rejoinder that one can “scarcely address all the issues that were discussed” (p. 22). My colleague Paul Murphy called the forum “engrossing.” As such, I believe the endeavor already qualifies as required reading for all graduate students and working professionals in U.S. intellectual history. Just the books and articles cited in each forum essay should be on required reading lists across American graduate programs.

So many of the books listed in Wickberg, Hollinger, and Igo’s essays have been published since 2001 that few to none were on my own doctoral exam reading lists. And my lists were constructed late in 2002 for an early 2003 major field exam. It is clear that there has been a kind of disguised explosion of books related to U.S. intellectual history within the last decade, or even just the last 7-8 years. I’m ashamed to confess my ignorance of the event. In my defense, the apparent explosion occurred during my dissertation writing period and in the hustle of job hunting shortly thereafter. Perhaps a backlog of more explicit intellectual history topics had developed since the cultural turn of the 1970s, and this paradoxically quiet boom is the result? Then again, since I have not read all of these books, maybe it is an issue of “foregrounding,” per Wickberg’s rejoinder (p. 23), in that these books have been advertised and sold, rightly or wrongly, as cultural histories due to professional trends? Hollinger also alludes to the problem of classification in his essay (p. 17). I would have to examine each book’s Library of Congress assignments to know for sure.

In any event, I found this sudden awareness of the boom in our subfield’s literature both exhilarating and intimidating. I knew about some the books beforehand, but at least 50 percent were off my radar—hence my surprise. It is a feeling analogous to having bought a large box of stuff at an auction, or rummage sale, based on what you saw on top, only to find when you got home that there were surprising number of new items at the bottom, some of which quite valuable. Of course this is an incomplete, and perhaps too negative, analogy at best.

After getting over these initial reactions and into the substance of the essays, the more reflective part of me came to see three categories of issues raised in each. I divided these into the external, the internal, and the relational. By external I mean issues that are outward facing and objectively historical from a professional point of view. They point toward other historical subfields and the public in general. By internal I refer to professional structural issues. And by relational I aim at those issues that bridge, or mediate, both the external and internal. Of course this merely a useful trope; my categories do not apply always and everywhere within the subfield. And none of the four forum authors address these categories as I construct them. Lastly, I will hazard a hierarchy of my tripartite taxonomy. Although the subtopics are interlinked across my categories, some are more important than others. I’ve grouped them accordingly.

External Issues

First in importance are topics related to pure history, or history as a subject of study and object of knowledge. These considerations include methodology, topics for research and writing, and teaching. Each has a great deal to do with how the subfield presents externally, such as:

– The question of broad metanarratives inherent in the history of ideas, versus the role of ideas in more integrated, chronologically narrow circumstances (an old but still unresolved debate, with regard to usefulness);
– The role of intellectual history in integrative, cross-disciplinary endeavors;
– The problem of integrating intellectual history topics into survey courses;
– Choosing and using primary resources;
– Audience concerns; and
– The asking and answering of substantive, broadly applicable questions.

All of these nuts and bolts considerations can be characterized as topics with primarily external implications—important beyond the profession but also dictating the usefulness of intellectual history to the profession. These issues should be of utmost importance to every self-identifying intellectual historian. All meaning and identity with regard to the subfield flow from these fundamental issues.

All forum contributors touched on aspects, either singly or in combination, of pure history in relation to the subfield. Methodological and topical relationships within the subfield are addressed by Igo, Wickberg, and Wilfred McClay.

Igo sees methodology as trending toward “a topic or question rather than a particular school of interpretation” (p. 19). She may be right that junior and younger historians prefer eclecticism, or even agnosticism, rather than limiting themselves by identifying with a particular school of linguistic or cultural theory. For methodology is a tool, not a subdiscipline. Even so, McClay and Wickberg point to peculiarities in approach and interests if not methodology. Wickberg forwards that the self-reflectivity inherent in historiography, including the search for systematic thought, lends itself to those who enjoy intellectual history (p. 15-16). He also notes that digital revolution lends itself to the “systematic tracing of ideas through multiple texts” (p. 16). My own experience in searching for the roots of the great books idea confirms Wickberg’s sense of the convenience of digital records.

McClay continued on peculiar topical and methodological relationships. For instance, because of the complexity of some thinkers and groups of intellectuals, he observed:

Left to its own subdisciplinary devices, [intellectual history] tends toward the esoteric and toward the invention of neologisms and arcane vocabularies that make distinctions and discriminations that are not available in ordinary language (p. 21).

I agree in that dealing with philosophers and complex thinking, intellectual historians must explain, at the very least, the relevance of neologisms, devices, and arcane vocabularies used in their primary resources. And Wickberg points to this problem in his opening and closing essays (p. 15, 23) when he speaks of studying “formal, developed systems of thought” as well as “foreground[ing] ideas, thinking, and the ways in which minds structure experience.” The burden of intellectuals historians, insofar as they hope to write beyond those interested in the history of philosophy, is to avoid the trap outlined by McClay and relate systems and ideas to both the age in which the thinker, or thinkers, lived, and to the present.

This points us to audience considerations. The ability to pique the interest of their contemporaries is what made Christopher Lasch, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Richard Hofstadter successful intellectual historians and public intellectuals. As professed intellectual historians they proved, in the marketplace, the relevance of the history of ideas. For whom are we writing? If too much of the burden of interpretation is on the reader, or if the topic feels only relevant to past actors (i.e. antiquarian), then only a few other intellectual historians and philosophers will buy the book. If the writer takes on the burden of simplification, then I believe that both the educated public and fellow historians will buy the book. Of course I’m not advocating for top-down applications weighted in favor of famous intellectuals—characteristics of the older, failed school of intellectual history. Nor am I pushing for a return to narratives that falsely pretend to be “a proxy for the study of all Americans,” to borrow Hollinger’s apt phrase (p. 17). Rather, I assert that a balance exists where an idea can be explained in full historically, in terms of foundations and the range of applicability, but also linked ahead by tracing variations. And this is something you might think that publishers could get behind.

I do not mean to imply that every intellectual history should end in the present. And perhaps the new books noted by Wickberg, Hollinger, and Igo do the work of connecting forward in some fashion. I do mean, in any case, that some attempt should be made by the author to relate forward the discrete period under consideration. Igo did it in her 2007 book, The Averaged American. Menand famously did it in The Metaphysical Club. Both worked, consciously or not, in the tradition of one of intellectual history’s founders, James Harvey Robinson, who advocated for usefulness in 1910s. Robinson might have taken things too far, but he decisively relayed the imperative:

Our books are like very bad memories which insist upon recalling facts that have no assignable relation to our needs, and this is the reason why the practical value of history has so long been obscured. …The present has hitherto been the willing victim of the past; the time has now come when it should turn on the past and exploit it in the interests of advance” (Peter Novick, That Noble Dream, 98).

There can be little doubt that Robinson was not going to overly burden his readers with the arcane. Some intellectual historians, by virtue of their names and seniority (e.g. Mark Noll, the Genoveses, Hollinger), their perennially favored topics (e.g. the Civil War, presidential biographies), and their topical timeliness (e.g. late twentieth-century conservatism, economic collapse) will not suffer for intentionally underplaying relevance. Everyone else, however, must strain to lessen the obscurity of their intellectuals or ideas. It must become a part of intellectual history’s “shared sense of craftsmanship,” per Igo’s apt citation of Michèle Lamont’s 2009 study (forum, p. 19).

In addition to forum contributors’ concerns about the study of history—of external matters per my classification scheme—there are other noteworthy considerations in the new subfields of transnational history and the history of emotions. Both categories present novel works that challenge the boundaries of traditional intellectual history and potentially expand the audience of readers of U.S. intellectual history. Hollinger noted that a productive kind of genre blurring has occurred between intellectual history, the history of learning, and the history of science “during the last generation.” This is a result of new categories of exploration such as work on social scientists and “the public role of natural scientists”—or scientists as public intellectuals (p. 18). I would assert that the same thing is happening in the other two categories that I mentioned.

Transnational history results in a great deal of genre blurring that helps make intellectual history attractive to the general public. Although not a perfect example, writing-wise, of balancing historical nuance with today’s concerns, Jay Corrin’s 2002 transnational study, Catholic Intellectuals and the Challenge of Democracy (Notre Dame Press), shows some of the topical promise of transnational history. His study moves beyond the English-speaking Catholic intellectuals to study the idea of Democracy in France, Germany, Spain, and Italy during the 1850-1940 period. Corrin remains within the boundaries of traditional intellectual history due to a focus on primarily on elite, prominent thinkers (e.g. G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, papal encyclicals, Jacques Maritain). But he does, however, make a point of broadening that base to include previously ignored figures, fringe thinkers, and ideologues (e.g. Rev. Charles Coughlin, Dorothy Day, Rev. H.A. Reinhold, Peter Maurin). And Corrin’s very relevant concern for political and economic democracy saves his study from the hint of obscurity. Although I loved the book, I wished that he would’ve spent an epilogue, or part of one at least, relating his study forward. I felt he could have tagged a number of present-day problems for Catholics in democracies (single-issue voting, social justice, economic inequality, subsidiarity, etc.). In sum, Corrin’s study points to the promise of his genre for U.S. intellectual history.

Genre blurring with intellectual history also occurs in another developing subfield: the history of emotions. My recent reading of Nicole Eustace’s 2008 book, Passion is the Gale: Emotion, Power, and the Coming of the American Revolution (North Carolina Press), brought home the possibilities for me. Eustace writes of emotion as a tool for affirming and building democratic culture. She argued that emotion provided an avenue for equality to speed past exclusivity. If access to learning, and hence reason, was limited (in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries), then emotion provided the means for developing what Eustace called “thumos”—a mix of passion and classical virtue (p. 377-88 of her text). Of course historians can cite counter-examples of how emotions have been used negatively by twentieth-century demagogues and ideologues. Even so, others will cite more positive uses by heart-tugging progressives. Eustace and her colleagues in the history of emotions, then, provide us with a tool for examining how the anti-reason category of anti-intellectualism might be used for the good of America. As such, history of emotions provides a means by which intellectual history can be presented from another angle—the back door, if you will.

Moving on to another point with external implications, each forum contributor addressed teaching, whether by thinking through the U.S. history survey in terms of intellectual history or by noting course offerings. Since surveys are the way that most college students—and a significant portion of the public by default—encounter U.S. history, they are a fundamental external concern. It’s a place for presenting the relevancy of intellectual history to those who might not encounter it otherwise. The essays address the survey in two ways: by topics covered and by the structure of the course. Wickberg’s opening piece addresses the neglect or optional nature of topics that are central to intellectual history—e.g. Pragmatism, Dewey, rise of the university, influence of Scottish philosophy, etc. (p. 15). Since surveys rarely come with precise sub-topic mandates from administration, in my experience at least, this shifts the burden onto the intellectual historian. She or he must decide to integrate what they think is important and then translate the high rhetoric, when necessary, for the students—or intentionally present something over their heads and challenge them to reach up (helping them later with a mid-term/final review). Fear of student incapability should not dictate the initial plan. After that we have to rely somewhat on the popularity of our approach among students to show the attractiveness of intellectual history to fellow teachers and administrators.

Three of the four forum contributors support the notion that the history of ideas is as good a connecting thread as any in a survey situation. And this constitutes a nice transitional point to what I have termed “relational issues”—the next topic in my taxonomy. Igo, Wickberg, and McClay make arguments for the history of ideas as being the best common thread in a wide-ranging survey course. Igo wrote that “a capacious history of ideas…can and ought to be central to the survey” (p. 19-20). McClay notes that surveys are “a great act of triage” (I agree) that requires some affinity for a metanarrative that is “honest, coherent, and reasonably complete” (p. 21). Intellectual history helps McClay in this effort. The question then becomes whether we can have substantive metanarratives while avoiding the older, much-abused (rightly) trap of “grand narratives”? (p. 16).

Wickberg, in his final rejoinder, argues aggressively that a history-of-ideas approach is the answer for showing intellectual history’s importance in a survey setting. That approach both allows for topical flexibility and reinforces the notion that intellectuals and great thinkers are important for understanding the ebb and flow of U.S. history. Wickberg wants us to “see ideas themselves in the driver’s seat,” not just people (to avoid the elite trap) or topics, as I see it, such as politics or class or gender or race (p. 24). He also desires us to “foreground ideas” in general and understand “ideas as a force in history” (p. 22-23). By doing these things, I would say that all historians will run much less risk of parochializing history in terms of particular ideas. By foregrounding ideas we will give those on the outside a greater sense of what some mid-century thinkers called “the great conversation” about the “great ideas.” We will make history more about the liberal arts and social sciences, and less about antiquarianism or a narrow political-ideological agenda. By thinking of ideas as a “force in history,” intellectual historians can help forward the interdisciplinary cause and make the subfield popular among non-professional audiences.

[This concludes Part I. Part II will explore Relational Issues within the hierarchy of my tripartite taxonomy, and will likely go up here on Monday, 10/12/2009.]

One Thought on this Post

  1. Colleagues: This is a long essay and has only been read by me. Because I’m *not* my own best copy editor, please let me know if you notice any missing words, misspellings, unclear passages, etc. Thank you in advance for your help. – TL

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