U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A Late Report from USIH 2009

I am a bit late—coming near two weeks after the conference, but I wanted to offer a brief report on some of the panels I saw. Time precludes attention to all the fine papers I heard, for I attended four panels and the two plenary discussions. So let me focus on one panel, “The Psychology of Twentieth-Century America,” a late Friday entry with a sparse audience (it deserved more) with a few darting glances at the previous panels.

First, the darting references: The range of work at the conference was wide: On a panel treating figures diverse as the historian Walter LaFeber and the 1960s activists and journalists David Horowitz and Todd Gitlin (by the way, Gitlin was in the audience, as was Eric Alterman, making for a lively discussion, especially regarding the intellectual merits and essential epistemology of Horowitz), Greg Sumner of the University of Detroit Mercy presented a paper on Kurt Vonnegut, attempting to redeem him from the intellectual ghetto in which he resides (too 1960s, for adolescents and near adolescents but not mature readers). Sumner finds in Vonnegut a decidedly pre-1960s and Midwestern (Vonnegut was from Indianapolis) corny patriotism and humanism, best exemplified by the character Edgar Derby in Slaughterhouse 5. I am not sure the free-thinking, socialist, if patriotic Vonnegut really represents the Midwestern ethos, but Sumner’s larger project of reclaiming Vonnegut through a close analysis of his novels seems fascinating. Likewise, in a panel on Cold War culture, Peter Aigner of CUNY made the case – quite convincingly – that the New Leader is an organ of mid-century New York intellectualism that has too long been ignored. Kathleen Brennan, also of CUNY, convinced me that the turn-of-the-century museum specialist and archaeologist Henry Chapman Mercer developed a species of antimodernism that might well have proffered a more useful adaptation and integration of the past with an ever-changing, machine-age present than most (including the Southern Agrarians, whom I have studied too much).

But, on to the main panel for discussion, “The Psychology of Twentieth-Century America”: As the commentator Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn observed, psychology gained a monopoly in twentieth-century American society both on diagnosing problems and providing the answers. Their power of definition became all-important. In this way, psychology has colonized life-space (an intriguing phrase). Susan Lanzoni of MIT gave a fascinating paper on the legacy in America of nineteenth-century German aesthetics oriented around the concept of Einfühling, or “feeling into.” The term was translated as “empathy” by the English psychologist Edward Titchener (who thus coined that all-important English term) and inspired folks like June Downey and Herbert Sydney Langfeld in America to do all sorts of fascinating (and downright entertaining) experiments on the individual perception of feeling and emotion in art, both with mind and body. Robert Genter, now teaching at Nassau Community College, traced the roots of the psychological analysis of political “pathology”—a phenomenon so characteristic of postwar America—to the 1920s imperative towards scientism in the social sciences and the deeply felt need for a reliable analysis of personality as a safeguard for modern democracy. Harold Lasswell crucially connects this 1920s project with the postwar world through his pathbreaking analysis of psychopathology and politics. Lasswell seems to have wanted candidates for political office to be psychoanalyzed: What might this have produced? Theodore Wisniewski of Simon Fraser University argued that B. F. Skinner and Carl Rogers had more in common than we (or they) might have believed. Despite the differences between the behaviorism of Skinner and the humanistic psychology of Rogers (which eventually fed into theories of client-centered therapy and self-actualization) both were essentially engaged in hashing out what Wisniewski considers an essential problem of American liberalism—the perennial realization of individual vulnerability in a society constructed around individual responsibility and initiative. He also claimed that both men deeply engaged Emerson and Thoreau and both had similar concerns and sympathies (e.g., with communes) in the 1960s.

One of the goals of USIH is, I think, to expand the conversation about American intellectual history beyond the narrow confines of the history discipline, and here we had a good example of it. As Lasch-Quinn observed in her final comment, intellectual historians need to seek out all those like-minded scholars around the university, whether in psychology, sociology, philosophy, or other disciplines—who are pursuing similar projects and engage them in dialogue.