U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Reflections on Intellectual History at the OAH

I was present at two sessions on intellectual history at last week’s annual meeting of the OAH in Washington, D.C., one as a participant and one as an audience member. Both took place in packed rooms. This prompted several intellectual historians to suggest, with enthusiasm, that we seem to be in the midst of a U.S. intellectual history revival. Some even hinted that the USIH Blog and Conference might have something to do with this renewal. I would like for us to have a sustained conversation about what might be prompting such a revival. What about our current moment is ripe for intellectual history? Perhaps we might convene a blog roundtable to tease out some answers to this question? Or a panel at our upcoming conference?

My panel, “Relativism and Its Discontents in Modern American Thought,” consisted of me, fellow USIH blogger Ben Alpers, and Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen. Casey Blake chaired; Bruce Kuklick commented. Jennifer went first, giving an eloquent paper on how black intellectual-activists such as Hubert Harrison, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Huey P. Newton appropriated Nietzsche to overturn the epistemological foundations of white racism. Rather than take on Nietzsche’s antifoundationalism, rather than admit to the death of God, these African-American thinkers built a more just foundation from which to seek equality. I loved Jennifer’s paper. It seems Kuklick enjoyed it as well. He said that he “liked Ratner-Rosenhagen’s way of putting this position. Black thinkers have a penchant for an anti-foundationalist epistemology and a foundationalist morality. In plainer academic English, for these black critics our empirical endeavors, which we usually consider less arguable, became subjective; morality, which we always argue over, became objective.”

Ben’s fascinating paper then sought to explain the Straussian interventions in political science during the 1960s. Ben convincingly argued that conservative critics of the academy picked up the Straussian critique of relativism and naturalism, which dominated the political science discipline at the time. In other words, anti-relativism worked well alongside conservative positions vis-à-vis the liberal academy, evidenced by how William F. Buckley famously lashed out at the relativism and socialism of his Yale professors in his famous 1955 missive, God and Man at Yale. I picked up where Ben left off by relating the anti-relativism of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind to right-wing positions on educational issues such as multiculturalism and affirmative action, positions best explicated by Dinesh D’Souza and Lynne Cheney.

Kuklick did not appreciate our papers quite as much as he did Jennifer’s. He critiqued us for arguing that anti-relativism worked best alongside conservative positions (which we didn’t argue), and for ignoring the number of left and liberal thinkers who espoused anti-relativist positions, such as Noam Chomsky (who were not the subjects of our papers). Kuklick, in his words, “pushed the discussion to insinuate that we presume relativism to be the norm and anti-relativism to require interpretation, its adherents subjected to a kind of therapy.” To this extent, Kuklick’s main complaint seemed to be with historians more broadly. To him, we are disconnected from philosophical currents. Philosophers, he intimates, think discussions of relativism and pragmatism quaint at best.

Ben came right back at Kuklick, in one of the best moments of the session, by saying that he agreed with Kuklick’s critique, except that it had nothing to do with his paper. This was my sense of Kuklick’s critique as well. He seemed to ignore that, in my conclusion, I quoted Terry Eagleton to argue that the best critique of conservative anti-relativism was from a left-wing absolutist vantage point: “If true loses its force, then political radicals can stop talking as though it is unequivocally true that women are oppressed or that the planet is being gradually poisoned by corporate greed.” That said, I think Kuklick nicely pushed the conversation. He certainly played the role of cantankerous senior scholar to good effect. I hope I get to play that role some day.

The second intellectual history panel that I attended was on “The New Intellectual History of Conservatism.” The speakers were Jennifer Burns, Beverly Gage, and Angus Burgin. (Click on their names to see video footage of their talks.) I enjoyed the session, but to be quite honest, I didn’t come away thinking there was anything very new about how they framed the latest scholarship. Sure, there has been really good work done, especially Burns’s recent intellectual biography of Ayn Rand. But I don’t see any new paradigms. In fact, I was a little disappointed by the defensive tone. They seem to think that the history of pointy-headed intellectuals is not sufficient—that intellectual history must rationalize its existence by linkages to things that truly matter to most people, such as experience, or politics. Now, as someone who writes mostly about intellectual history as political culture, perhaps I’m the wrong person to argue against such a conception of intellectual history. But this so-called “new” approach seems to replicate older worries that led to the death of intellectual history. It does not seem to be in the spirit of “revival.” I welcome comments!!!

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I attended the panel on Relativism (and even got a question in) and was also pleasantly surprised at both the numbers in the room and the quality of the papers. I agree about the comment, it seemed almost willfully off-base in order to provoke discussion.

    As to the broader question of a revival. I do not think this is anything we intellectual historians have done (though I do love the blog and had an excellent time at the conference). When I began graduate school and told people I was interested in intellectual history, most senior scholars either smiled politely or asked, “why.” However, my junior colleagues are less interested in categories and are more interested in asking questions intellectual history is designed to answer: how people thought of themselves and others (questions of identity). Though they call themselves cultural historians, these are of course very old questions in intellectual history. In other words, we have not adapted as much as the field has come around to asking questions we have always been interested in. Jennifer’s paper seems a great example. Though it is clearly intellectual, she is looking at very important questions in the history of the book and the history of reading: reader response. No one would scoff if she used that label to describe her work, it would seem as interesting and cutting-edge as it actually is.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Matt. And thanks, too, for attending our panel at the OAH. Interesting thesis, that US intellectual history is popular mostly because categories have fallen away and because we ask important questions. Certainly more plausible than attributing a revival to the blog! I do think something more is at work though, because so many of us consciously seek to define what we do as intellectual history, specifically, even though we aren’t afraid of crossing categories and disciplines.

    I talked about this with James Levy in DC. He had a pretty good thesis. Whereas intellectual history used to be seen as elitist, with the heightened political anti-intellectualism of the conservative movement made explicit during the Bush years, intellectuals seemed on the defensive, and intellectual life something worth defending and studying again.

    I think there is something more internal to the historical discipline at work. During the social historical turn, intellectual history was seen as out of touch, but then, as Julian Nemeth and I discussed at the OAH, the cultural turn brought the questions of intellectual history back into the discussion.

    I also think that the history of important dead white men is possible to write again, because we’ve gone through the social and cultural turn emphases of race and gender.

    Like I wrote in the post, I would like to see this question more systematically investigated in the form of a roundtable of panel session. Cheers.

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