It is time to reflect on the Third Annual U.S. Intellectual History Conference, another successful meeting. One of the more memorable moments for me was the final plenary, which grappled with the question, “Intellectual History for What?” The six panelists contended with this question in a variety of ways.
George Cotkin answered by way of a moving, intimate look into his fine career as a writer of intellectual history that despite, or even because of, its setbacks, has nourished his soul. Rochelle Gurstein argued that intellectual historians need to write for “serious, engaged readers,” in order to recreate or reinvent a “public,” singular. The conference theme “Intellectuals and Their Publics,” plural, did not resonate with her.
Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, pulling no punches, advised that U.S. intellectual historians not stoop to the level of our colleagues in other fields, in terms of perpetual self-examination or self-flagellation. She also wished that we would be more cosmopolitan, read more continental theory, learn more languages. In general, she and the others lamented the technocratic, careerist, anti-intellectual culture that pervades academia and elsewhere.
Bill McClay, although pessimistic about our place as intellectual historians in the larger profession, pointed out that all historians do intellectual history when they do historiography. He pointed to the example of the great 1985 debate, in the pages of the American Historical Review, between Thomas Haskell and David Brion Davis about the problem of slavery and capitalism (the debate was later published as a book). This, for McClay, is intellectual history at its finest, even if nobody called it by its name.
David Steigerwald argued that intellectual history is inherently expansive and that we should be shameless trespassers. This spoke to me, as the type of intellectual history I write invades and occupies political, cultural, and educational history. In reflecting upon the wide variety of papers given, it seems to me that U.S. intellectual history, as practiced at our conference, has invaded American Studies, perhaps changing or altering it in productive ways, by putting expressive culture into conversation with more formal systems of ideas.
Casey Nelson Blake, who organized the plenary, concluded by arguing that one of the most important things we as intellectual historians can do is offer contextual maps to intellectuals, activists, and citizens engaged in daily work or struggle. He gave the example of artists who ask him, as an art historian, to help them put their work in a broader contextual framework.
The one theme that remained constant during this plenary session is the despair that humanistic values cannot live in a culture dominated by technocratic or vulgar utilitarian purposes. Humanistic study, including intellectual history, is not long for such a world. To this extent, Christopher Lasch was the not-so-subtle backdrop. Three of the panelists (Gurstein, Steigerwald, Blake) studied with Lasch at Rochester. And, of course, another is his daughter. Blake makes clear in a Commonweal review of a new biography of Lasch (requires subscription to access) how highly he thinks of his mentor. He concludes his essay, “What Emerson wrote of Thoreau holds true for Christopher Lasch: ‘wherever there is knowledge, wherever there is virtue, wherever there is beauty, he will find a home.’”
The questions I pose to readers: Is the fate of intellectual history so closely tied to the fate of the humanities? Is there, then, reason for despair? More specifically, to those in attendance Friday night: What did you think of the plenary?