One of the recurring themes on this blog in recent months involves the question of how intellectual historians ought to deal with thought that is simply wrong…or worse.
Of course there’s nothing very new about this problem, nor is it, at first glance, a matter of much controversy. After all, many, many significant ideas from the past–from the ether to George Fitzhugh’s defense of slavery–are both intellectually significant and, from the standpoint of the twenty-first century, deeply incorrect. Yet we have no problem taking them seriously and writing about or teaching them.
But the issue is made more vexed if the ideas in question are living ideas. If–despite their being wrong or worse–they have advocates today. And this is frequently the case when one studies contemporary intellectual history.
Here are just some of the instances in which this issue has come up on this blog in recent months: David’s coverage of the dustup between Jill Lepore and Gordon Wood over how to treat the Teaparty’s view of the American past; Andrew’s discussion of the attack on ethnic studies in Arizona; Mike’s consideration of Mike Huckabee’s bizarre denial of British imperialism; and the discussion of Andrew’s post on Lisa Szefel’s review of Dan Rodgers’s Age of Fracture.
One of my early difficulties in grasping what the Nazis thought they were up to was that I could not take their professed racist ideology seriously. Instead of listening hard to what they were saying, I assumed the language to be largely rhetorical. That is a natural but completely misleading response. Other people do think differently from us. (p. 91)
Of course the Nazis are a particularly hard case in this regard. But what Clendinnen (rightly IMO) says about them should also be said of others who we encounter in our studies whose ideas strike us (presumably to a lesser extent than the Nazis’) as erroneous, foolish, or vicious. We should resist the urge to simply “translate” uncomfortable ideas into terms that more easily make sense to us. We should be wary of too easily denying that the people we study believe what they say they believe.
3) Of course how we do this–what tools we use, to borrow the metaphor from the discussion of Szefel’s review of Age of Fracture–is a more complicated question.