U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Moving Beyond "Everywhere and Nowhere"

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

(Part II of III)

by Tim Lacy

[Recap: In Part I, I introduced my reorganization of the forum‘s essay topics into three categories: external issues, relational issues, and internal issues. The first post then offered my reflections and extensions on external issues. Today I will move on to the second category. – TL]

Relational Issues

Second in importance are relational issues between the external and internal categories. Relational issues bridge the difference between objective historical concerns, including intellectual history’s outward thrust into the larger world, and internal professional topics. Wickberg addresses the relational category in the second-to-last paragraph of his rejoinder. Please indulge me as I relay this long but fundamental paragraph (underscores mine):

Perhaps many of us do not want to see ideas [as “in the driver’s seat”], for reasons that McClay points to in his discussion of historians’ fascination with historiography. Historians, like social scientists, are inclined to see the categories and ideas they use as having a life apart from the objects they are designed to understand and explain. They want to evaluate theories, categories, and methods on their functional use and intellectual adequacy rather than seeing those very categories and theories as “inside” culture, as part of the very thing being examined and explained; the old object-subject distinctions that have been repeatedly undermined over the past century are still with us. If we historicize such concepts as “class,” “attitude,” “gender,” “assimilation,” or “average”—all social scientifically derived keywords that speak to a worldview or sensibility—it makes it harder to present our students [or readers] a naturalized view of the objects such categories represent. . . .I suspect that many historians, as much as they acknowledge this condition in the abstract, in practice want their ideas to be outside of history, rather than all over it.

When I first read the opening sentences of this counterintuitive passage I thought I had read it wrong. Was Wickberg really saying that we are sometimes poor historians with regard to our own beliefs? When I began graduate school in the late 1990s, it seemed that the profession was all about you, as a developing historian, understanding your own theory of history. Theory was the thing. Of course a professional “animus” to this existed even then, as Wickberg relays in his opening piece, in the form of craft-like empiricism (p. 16). But are we now reacting to the old theory debates by participating in what Wickberg called a kind of professional anti-intellectualism, thereby ignoring the importance of intellectual history? (p. 15). And how does thinking about our own theories help relate external and internal issues in the field?

This passage is clearly challenging us to continually be aware of, and revisit, our own controlling assumptions. And it does seem that historians have to be reminded, per their graduate courses in historiography, that history applies to every historian’s own philosophy about the field. Recognizing our assumptions, via intellectual history applied inwardly, is necessary for professional health and honesty. The practice of intellectual history and its fraternal twin, the history of ideas, enables historians to be more self-aware. Intellectual history helps historians examine their own metanarratives. The history of ideas presents us with another layer of contextualization that aids the historian in being more holistic and honest about the roots and boundaries of her or his discourse. All people think with and in categories. And if ideas are, or at least can function as, instruments—as John Dewey told us and Wickberg reminds us (p. 23)—it is sometimes appropriate to work backward into the ultimate ideas. This makes intellectual history relevant to the reader and the writer of history. Otherwise it is like analyzing a farm harvest by talking only about the scythe or the plow (the instrument), and ignoring a discussion of the person or the tractor (the power behind the instrument).

To provide an example from personal experience, this process of backing up demonstrated to me how questions of gender, as I understand them, moved into questions about power structure, moral values, religion, and culture. As a graduate student I enjoyed the study of gender and women’s history precisely because it brought me back to larger ideas and issues in Western and world history. This is how I came to appreciate the lessons of gender history as a reader. And Wickberg’s argument, with which I agree, is that this is necessary for everyone—both in the beginning and as we renew our vows to the field. It demonstrates a relation of the role of intellectual history to both external and internal issues. Showing the links to larger, older, and sometimes more attractive ideas or metanarratives, helps draw the reader into the special lessons that need to be taught about race, class, gender, emotions, etc.

Another relational issue concerns topics studied within U.S. intellectual history and their interest to both the profession and readers of history. For instance, Daniel Wickberg reminds us that a tool of intellectual history, known today as the linguistic turn, and the important “bottom up” dictum of social history, helped feed the cultural turn that displaced intellectual history from the forefront of the discipline. This displacement, partially shown to be true by course offering percentages in Hollinger’s essay (p. 17), was easy because the prevailing feeling was that intellectual history concentrated on elites and elite systems of thought—topics no longer in vogue. And such narrow foci led to intellectual history’s “neglect” and the growth of exciting new avenues of exploration in cultural and social history. The profession seemed to feel, collectively, that a more democratic history of ideas and thought must necessarily evolve going forward. New topics must be explored.

This was the consensus of the participants in the 1977 Wingspread Conference. As a result a democratization has, in some ways, come about. It is being done in African-American history, as Sarah Igo, Wickberg, and Hollinger all noted (p. 15, 18-19). In addition, I am aware that Caroline Merithew, Toby Higbie, and others are doing work on the thoughts and minds of the working class. I have little doubt that other subfields could put forward representative examples of new topics and topical genre blurring indicative of a democratized U.S. intellectual history.

Interdisciplinary efforts comprise another relational subcategory. Work in this realm provides intellectual history with an opportunity to connect with non-historical disciplines, thereby increasing the audience possibilities for the subfield and anchoring the subfield in academy. If intellectual history shows itself to be useful to scientists, philosophers, literary scholars, and political scientists, then the demand for professional intellectual historians will be high. Wickberg notes that the “interdisciplinary impulse…is peculiarly suited to intellectual history,” and that those historians “often find themselves in dialogue with those on the margins of other disciplines,” be they philosophers, political scientists, or anthropologists to name a few (p. 16). I agree with this by way of desire and my own reading list, but not so much in person; I don’t meet often with philosophers, psychologists, legal scholars, and political scientiests, but I read their works.

Igo observed the same “mixing” as Wickberg, but also that the interdisciplinary movement works from the outside in. She has noticed that ideas “are growing in importance for many scholars, no matter how they categorize themselves” (p. 19). McClay and Hollinger, in addition, believe that intellectual history works best in an interdisciplinary fashion as “a meeting ground…for the dissidents within existing disciplines” (p. 21). For them, it seems, dialogue about ideas, especially marginal ones, defines intellectual history. I find much to like in this notion, and the loss of that feeling would be my only regret if U.S. intellectually history were to be mainstreamed again. Returning to the sub-theme, I fear that hitching the success of intellectual history to the academic interdisciplinary movement may just perpetuate the “everywhere and nowhere” situation so aptly summarized by McClay (p. 20).

Hollinger provides a useful segue into our third category, internal professional concerns, by pointing to intellectual history’s interdisciplinary usefulness within the profession in general. He laments how, somewhere in the past 35 years, social history came to be seen as the most wide-ranging and useful subfield even while intellectual history never lost its inter-subfield relevance. In European history the situation still allows for, or favors, intellectual history as a connector, but Hollinger calls this “a genuine blind spot” within the profession on the U.S. side of the ledger.

[This concludes Part II. Part III will explore Internal Issues within the hierarchy of my tripartite taxonomy, and will likely go up here on Thursday, 10/15/2009.]