U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Pulling a Thread: How Should Intellectual Historians Deal with Erroneous, Foolish, or Vicious Thought?

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.

As the title of this post suggests, I’m really only going to pull briefly on this conversational thread, as I need to get back to grading and I’m not sure a longer post would produce any answers in any event. But as this issue keeps coming up, I figured I’d call attention to it and make a few observations:
1) Historians’ truth-squadding has its place.  People do express opinions about the past that are simply wrong. And as historians, we have a responsibility, perhaps even a duty, to point out when people use bad history to bolster their arguments in public debate.  But while pointing out when people simply get the past wrong is an important thing that we historians can do, it’s a very small part of what doing (contemporary) history, let alone (contemporary) intellectual history, consists of. 
2) Part of doing intellectual history well consists of taking nearly every idea seriously.  The limits to this rule involve some measure of significance. And they also, in my opinion, exclude the rare idea that is expressed in utterly bad faith.  But significant ideas that we happen to believe are wrong, inane, or even deeply evil should still be taken seriously. One of the books I like using in my course on the history and memory of World War II since 1945 is Inga Clendinnen’s Reading the Holocaust.  Among other things, Clendinnen argues that historians must take Nazi ideas seriously:

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.

10 Thoughts on this Post

  1. One could make a case that much of the substance of intellectual history is to be found in various movements and thinkers whose self-professed aim was combatting the errors and fallacies of their predecessors, of conventional wisdom, of authority, etc. That was pretty much the purpose of the Enlightenment, the movement/period I study. And think too of Burke, who objected that the Enlightenment was founded on a series of pernicious solipsisms. He regarded “erroneous, foolish, or vicious thought” with the utmost serious. In the end, then, it behooves us to do the same, because for a lot of the people we study, that was exactly what they were about.

  2. I am reminded of what Menand wrote in The Metaphysical Club, all beliefs are bets on the future. Any belief any of us holds is based on a bet that in the future we will be proved right. This allows us to hold on to ideas that may not be popular at any moment, may not appear rational to others, and may in the end prove erroneous. But that does not mean we do not hold onto that belief with passion and conviction.

  3. I am curious about the Clendinnen Nazi example. How much time should a historian of WWII spend struggling with the bad ideas of, say, David Irving or other Holocaust deniers? Are there academics which one should just not take seriously at all?
    In another comment I mentioned how one has only so much time in the day for bad ideas. Efforts to correct the errors and sloppy psycho-history of D’Souza seem to have been a waste of time if recent comments by Gingrich, Huckabee, and a lot of talk radio are any indication. I understand how grappling with D’Souza might prove fruitful in the end; that is, how it might encourage good discussions about the Mau Mau and imperialism more generally, but I suspect that most of this stuff is falling upon deaf ears. What should be the strategy for the intellectual historian when powerful memes are launched in the present? I guess I’m seeing quite a bit more utter bad faith than others when I see bad ideas.

  4. How much time should a historian of WWII spend struggling with the bad ideas of, say, David Irving or other Holocaust deniers? Are there academics which one should just not take seriously at all?

    Depends on what one is studying, Anonymous.

    If one is studying the history of World War II, one can well ignore Irving. If, on the other hand, one is studying, e.g., the changing memory of the bombing of Dresden, Irving plays a central role, as his study of Dresden (however inadequate it was) was crucial in framing public discussions of that event for several decades.

    Similarly, Huckabee’s views about Obama will not be necessary (or even helpful) for future historians seeking to understand Barack Obama. But they may well prove essential as at least a small part of a future historical understanding of American political culture in 2011.

  5. Ben,

    I wonder if part of the problem for intellectual historians is that the “erroneous, foolish, and vicious thought” they’d prefer to deal with exists in the present. That’s where mistakes are the most dangerous. But, by nature of their work, intellectual historians deal with thought wherein the dangers have already played out.

    This is why I find the whole notion of the history-of-the-present compelling (and fraught with its own dangers). A history of the present might accidentally deal with truth-squadding, but not necessarily. And it involves less decision-making about legitimacy because it sees the ideas in question as driving present-day actors.

    The danger I see is in linking, via effect to cause, the chain in reverse. Historians are used to being able to work up and down a chain, looking at nodal points and the surrounding circumstances. But a history-of-the-present chain necessarily has a teleology.

    We also shouldn’t underestimate the complexity of truth-squadding. Most of the troublesome points utilized about the past are problematic for a reason: the events were, and are, open to interpretation, or at least multi-causal without a clear hierarchy. Our job is to help tease through the hierarchy of causes and sort out the probability of relevance. We’re experts on the probability of relevance.

    – TL

  6. I have almost the opposite problem. I let my subjects’ ideas stand for themselves and try to not put my own spin on them (except that then I inevitably get the criticism that there is no thesis in the piece).

    I saw/heard about an English lit scholar getting severly castigated in the Q&A (I left right before the Q&A) for not criticizing the way that the black woman she was studying was channeling white supremacy by telling black girls in an advice column to be careful. The audience member felt like the language used to caution black girls was playing on the stereotype of black man as rapist.

    This has left me very conflicted about the article I’m in the midst of revising for publication. I have these two women with different opinions about the world that, if I wanted to reach for a thesis, could be divided into “protest” and “accomodation” (though I prefer the term “cooperation”–b/c JD still thought she was transforming the American racial system, just by cooperating with white liberals rather than exposing their inherent contradictions). And MB was not a protestor in the vein of Malcolm X, though she was a close friend of Du Bois’s and influenced by him.

    So do I have to point out the ways in which all of my actors are reifying white supremacy, a la George Lipsitz? That seems like a less interesting project than to see how these black women coped with the world they were given. And also, there is an inherent presentist type criticism of them if I use Lipsitz. Part of my problem, I suppose, is that I sympathize with both MB and JD and want to present them both as sympathetic characters, but reaching for a thesis I tend to turn the philosophy/actions of one or the other into craziness.

  7. Strategically, my own inclination has been to try to make the familiar strange and the strange, if not familiar, at least understandable. That means that ideas I tend to agree with and whose assumptions I share require a greater critical distance and a careful unpacking of their peculiarities to demonstrate just how “non-common sensical” those ideas are. Ideas that are alien (such as proslavery thought and all manners of antiliberal thought), I tend to go the greater distance to make coherent and comprehensible, to understand how and why people might have held these beliefs. I’m as happy as the next person to argue with “live” beliefs, but I generally think that when we put on our historian’s hat, we really shouldn’t be in the business of arguing with or correcting people in the past. The more we engage in stories of who was right and who was wrong, the weaker our historical analysis becomes; the strength of history lies in the distance we have from the events and ideas we narrate and analyze. The distinctive way in which historians engage ideas is to be more concerned with their origins, development, and effects than with their truth value. But maybe I’m in the minority on this.

  8. I’m inclined to agree with Dan Wickberg on this – after all, on what basis could we judge what ideas are “erroneous, foolish, or vicious” except by the common sense metric of our own time, place and circumstances? I thought we were interested in the dynamics of ideas as a dimension of human life, their sources, modes of existence, and how they play out over time? The idea that historians might function as a truth squad strikes me as the worst kind of presentism.

  9. To riff off of what bffine writes, one of the goals I have as an historian is to understand more deeply and broadly “the dynamics of ideas as a dimension of human life,” but as a present-day citizen I find it very hard to approach some points of view with this more objective and disciplined perspective.

    For example, I find it relatively easy to understand and empathize with how and why so many educated people were resistant to large-scale investment in urban sanitation infrastructure in the 1920s-1930s, but I find it very hard not to be subjective & cynical about our present crop of deniers of anthropogenic global climate change.

Comments are closed.