At the last session of the second annual USIH conference in New York City, we had the privilege of listening to the wisdom of a host of intellectual historians who have influenced the field in significant ways. They discussed the future of the field. I’m sure many of you have thoughts about this session, but I’d like to briefly clarify a question I asked and see if any of you would like to continue the conversation.
I asked how the panelists thought that the way we write US Intellectual History would change following the migration of intellectuals into the academy and the way that ideas have become discipline-bound. Thomas Bender mentioned the thesis of his recent work on Higher Education and David Hollinger dismissed the romanticism of academics for the cafe life. I found these answers unsatisfactory for my underlying question, which clearly didn’t make it into the question I actually asked.
What I was really thinking about was the specialization of ideas. How are we going to work on understandings bound into a discipline other than our own, when most of the discussion that takes place is not in some kind of public sphere, but within a specific discipline with their own vocabulary, own conferences, and trends that takes their specialists many years to master. Someone mentioned at the conference that other disciplines always seem to think the other is 50 years behind (he referenced a scientist who asked him with a bit of a sneer if we are still ruled by Thomas Kuhn).
Take, for example, historians of science. They most often come out of science undergraduate degrees. When I switched from physics to history a lot of people encouraged me to move into the history of science, but I chose not to. However, this means I can understand more of the history of science talks I’ve been to than many of my peers. But not a ton more. I needed AP Physics and three years of solid mathematical and physics training, albeit at the high school and undergraduate level, in order to understand a small slice of physics.
So–do we as intellectual historians need to take on the serious study of specializations, like historians of science? I write about black economist Abram Harris in my dissertation. Should I have taken some classes in the economics department, or asked for a reading list from an economics department in order to fully understand his life? Even though I am more interested in his place at Howard University, his relationships to other intellectuals, and his self-development as an intellectual? And he is only one of a large interdisciplinary cast of characters (including poets, historians, political scientists, educators, lawyers, and activists) that I am discussing?
Perhaps ideas are not more complex now that they have been situated in universities (or even more cut off from the public sphere, given the immediacy of the internet), but I do think they are more specialized and this may require specialized training for us to do the synthesis and broad-ranging work we are known for. I particularly liked Hollinger’s discussion of Luke Menand as a beginning of an answer. He mentioned that philosophers hated The Metaphysical Club, but intellectual historians recognized its strength as an engaging introduction to the lives and historical contexts of Pragmatists.
There was an activist from Haiti among us. She asked me after one panel how we would move these discussions beyond the academy. I am usually at a loss when faced with that question (and indeed, a bit surprised to be asked at the USIH. It tends to come up much more at African American History conferences). I doubt very much making it into the New Yorker was what she meant. She wanted us to be engaged in world-changing events, where I often feel that the strength of history is in its powers of reflection. But it is a question that I think should be perennially posed to us.