U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Who’s In? The Hierarchy Of Intellectuals

Comments by “Nils” on a recent post by Andrew Hartman, which was a reflection on Daniel Rodgers’ Age of Fracture via Lisa Szefel’s book review, reminded me of past discussions at USIH about always touchy subject of elitism in U.S. intellectual history. By this I mean elitism in the objects of analysis by historians of U.S. intellectual life.

I have encountered some of that elitism in my professional life. About three years ago, here at USIH, I wrote about what I called “The Varieties of Intellectual Experience” . In post I cited what I believed to have been unjust discrimination in relation to my work on Mortimer J. Adler. The gist was that a reviewer (a senior intellectual historian) believed I had more spade work to do in an article because Adler was a “pseudo-intellectual.” It was not that my topic was illegitimate, or that my citation of Adler’s contribution to that topic was illegitimate. Rather, I had to prove to the reader that Adler himself was a legitimate object of study in any sense. At the time I saw the reproof as a sort of historical ad hominem. Since Adler was an intellectual who appealed (purposely, I should add) to middlebrow readers, his person and thinking were suspect.

As a corrective I called for the study of “event-oriented thought” and proposed the category of “occasional intellectual.” Here’s an excerpt from the post:

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“In analyzing intellectual events, one can freely explore the work of interlopers or so-called pseudo-intellectuals. Let’s group both in the class of ‘occasional intellectuals.’ The only assumption the historian need have in these explorations is an optimistic belief that people can rise above. Profundity need not only come from those who’ve dedicated their lives to higher matters, yes?

“What are some examples of event-oriented intellectualism? One might say that newspaper editorials, call-in radio, presidential debates, and TV talk shows provide opportunities for discrete high-level thought. Could Oprah’s TV show rise to a level worthy of exploration by intellectual historians? Surely. Perhaps an episode of Rush Limbaugh’s radio program? Certainly. A one-time article in the editorial section of tabloid-style newspaper? Definitely. Could an Obama-Clinton debate (to use a [then] current example) provide fodder for intellectual historians? I would hope so. These examples, furthermore, underscore potential intersections of cultural, political, and women’s history with intellectual history. Perhaps this is just, in the end, a way of intensifying the philosophic component of certain kinds of cultural history—moving some cultural history into the category of intellectual history?”

“The point here is that the work of historians of U.S. intellectual life need not focus on the consistent output, over a long time span, of philosophers, academics, and public intellectuals—the regulars of intellectual history. That old approach favors established institutions, people, and commonly accepted works of thought. While those objects of an intellectual historian’s thought should never be ignored, they should also never be used to build walls around a subdiscipline. Occasional intellectuals ought to be just as important to historians of U.S. intellectual life if the field is to avoid prolonged periods of stagnation.”
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The most obvious weakness of my proposal is that the intellectual life does not work solely in terms of events. So a broad definition of event is in order. I should also give it a French name to make it sound more formal and theoretical: événement (approx.. “incident”). But I stand by my proposal that all sorts of people can fit in the category of “occasional intellectual.” One can be given that label, or another less (apparently) condescending one, without denigrating or uplifting the rest of that person’s intellectual life. I concede freely that I do not apply my full intellect to every event in which I participate. Indeed, I would argue that’s kind of participation is not humanly possible (i.e. in terms of the finite energy every person possesses).

Otherwise, we will have to live with some kind of hierarchy of intellectual capability in order to grade their ability to participate. Here’s a possible ordering (given from highest to lowest—and with my tongue in cheek):

1. The Intellectual
1.a. Philosopher
1.b. Literati/Humanists
1.c. Women and Men of Letters
2. Expert (e.g. eggheads, mere scientists)
3. Academic intellectual/scholar (e.g. professor, academician)
4. Pseudo/middlebrow intellectual (e.g. popular intellectual, bookworm, pundit, the clever)
5. Ignorant (i.e. passive)
6. Anti-intellectual (i.e. must be active), and last but not least…
7. St. Patrick’s Day “plastic” Paddies

To my USIH compadres, how do you determine who’s in and who’s out? – TL

13 Thoughts on this Post

  1. A social historian recently told me, “Intellectual historians study the thinking of people who were self-consciously proposing and discussing ideas and reacting to the ideas of other intellectuals.” This is not my understanding of the field.

    Oddly, some intellectual historians seem to hold that view as well — hence all the turf wars over who is and who isn’t worthy of being considered an intellectual, whose writing contains “ideas” as opposed to watered-down second-order simplifications of other people’s ideas, etc., etc.

    The key, it seems to me, is to move the focus from “intellectuals” to “ideas,” and to recognize that what “intellectuals” (however loosely defined) produce and discuss is a tiny subset of the ideas available for study.

    I think part of the problem is that some intellectual historians wish to identify ourselves as and with the objects of our study: “intellectuals.” But I would suggest that far fewer of us would qualify as “intellectuals” than we care to acknowledge. There’s all this posturing and signaling and positioning in the hopes that someone might assume that we are members of the club rather than members of the catering staff.

    So the fight about who is and isn’t an intellectual seems to me to be more about our own status than about the proper subject matter of the field.

    Intellectuals may be few and far between, both in our research and among our ranks. But ideas are everywhere. Intellectual history is on solid ground when it concerns itself with the ideas at play at a particular time and place, and how those ideas both reflect and shape the broader sensibilities of that particular province of the foreign country of the past.

  2. I agree with LD. I am much more interest in the history of thought regardless of who thought it. I would refer the blog to Dan Wickberg’s essay ” Intellectual history vs. the social history of intellectuals” in Rethinking History.

    Recognized intellectuals leave us with useful text, but they are not the end. How ideas circulate in a culture or across cultures is much more relevant. In these contexts recognized intellectuals participate in an ongoing interpretive dialogue with a wider culture.

  3. @LD: The problem with your social historian’s statement is, to me, in the “self-consciously,” though as you said she/he has described one type of intellectual history. But the traditional complaint about writing the history of ideas is (a) not enough context is attached for the critics, and (b) that those ideas are too vaguely defined (e.g. airy). I vocalize those complaints though I do not agree with them. I disagree with you, however, on your speculation about intellectual historians having an identity confusion problem. Though I recognize your call for humility, and the anti-elitism it implies, I think it’s safer to assume that ~most~ historians (intellectual and otherwise) recognize their limits as either intellectuals or public intellectuals.

    @Anon: Agreed, though I do not think I’ve read Dan’s essay.

    To restate my final question, perhaps I’m most interested in hearing from others how they decide who is in “the conversation”? If we follow Hollinger’s community of discourse paradigm, how does one decide who’s in the conversation? Does the evidence come from textual contributions, or from ideas that the historian sees as relevant? – TL

  4. It seems to me the question over what is and what is not intellectual history is mostly a poorly framed and dangerous one. Dangerous because it allows people to make normative claims about what it is appropriate to study based on a priori and insufficiently warranted definitions of what qualifies as IH, for instance. (“IH is X… therefore Y is not IH.”) It brings out the policeman in us, eager to enforce rules about what does or does not belong whether or not they are legitimately ground. Poorly framed because the boundaries between subfields are artifacts of an artificial academic division of labor, not mirrors of the historical past. Such thinking can, for instance, produce artificial rules separating who and what can be studied. Whether Rawls should be studied in the same chapter as Noonan, it seems to me, can only be decided in reference to how well such a project adds to a valuable larger research program and how convincing the argument is in establishing such a link. (So questions like “who is in the conversation” – certainly an important questions – should be answered not in reference to some definition of what IH is, but rather in reference to what the project is and what the historical record shows. [I don’t mean to suggest TL is saying otherwise.])

    Rather than dressing up our own research preferences as normative claims about what defines IH, we should instead argue over what constitutes good, useful, or interesting research for realizing certain projects and agenda, realizing that there is no single understanding of what path, nor which research agenda, will best make sense of the world. “How ideas circulate in a culture or across cultures” may be “much more relevant,” but only to those who have certain projects and agendas in mind to which such an approach can be so relevant. Not everyone aspires to the goal, for instance, of describing social change directly via empirical research. Similarly, those of us, of whom I count myself one, who restrict ourselves to more canonical ideas, have other interests (that are not merely those of elevating ourselves to the rank of those whom we study) and agendas.

    Much more so that debates over who is the real intellectual historian, we can have much meaningful discussion about what project best contribute to a given agenda (for instance, if I want to directly describe social change, then delving into Rawls personal life is probably not the way to go). But when we evaluate larger research agendas, we should be charitable in recognizing that none of us have a privileged standpoint from which to decree which approach is best. How ideas cross borders may appeal to more historians now than in the past, but that is no assurance that such an approach is better overall. (And the same may be said for the canonical approach, etc.) Rather than power grabs cloaked in the language of who is doing real intellectual history, or for that matter real history simpliciter, I say let a thousand flowers bloom. Yes, I am avoiding the task of delineating what research agendas are or are not productive, but that is in large part born out of my point that there is no clear method for arriving at definitive answers. That is to say, we should be only reluctant and humble policemen. -B

  5. @Anonymous 1: Thanks for the bibliography suggestion.

    @TL: The “identity confusion” problem of some intellectual historians goes hand in hand with the “elitism” problem that you mentioned in the body of this post. You specifically mentioned the comments of “Nils” from that earlier thread. Well, it took several rounds of comments between “Nils,” Dan Wickberg, Andrew Hartman and others before there was any retreat from the claim that certain subjects/ideas were unworthy of treatment in intellectual history. (Favorite line from that exchange: ” ‘Really?’ is not an argument.”)

    @Anonymous 2: I agree that when considering a subject and/or an approach, the criterion is that of utility. There are some questions which can best be framed by a Hollingerian approach, some subjects which can best be considered by a study of “more canonical ideas.” In my current project, I am neck deep in canonical ideas and Hollingerian conversationalists and a dizzying eddy of boundary-crossing ideas swirling about in a broader culture. All of this can be accommodated within the discipline of intellectual history…theoretically. Whether I can handle this task is another question entirely!

  6. Hehe. It seems that my comments questioning the wisdom of Rodgers’s decision to treat the likes of Noonan and Rawls as fundamentally equivalent ideators is now being construed as a kind of “border policing” operation. I guess that makes me the historiographical equivalent of the Minutemen (http://bit.ly/hPczDw), exercising vigilante justice against the coyotes (http://bit.ly/hBm851) who are illicitly smuggling in low class, alien ideas into the hallowed land of Highbrow Intellectual History.

    I appreciate the populist self-fashioning, but it’s not at all what I was trying to say or inadvertently implying.

  7. The issue is not one of disciplinary definition, but rather how one selects appropriate methodological tools for the subject at hand. Sure, “occasional intellectuals” may sometimes turn out an idea that is worth studying with the tools of intellectual history, just as an amateur photographer may occasionally snap a picture that’s just as complex and challenging as anything produced by Annie Leibowitz or James Nachtwey. And when they do, then by all means, have at it with the tools of intellectual history.

    Most of the time, though, when those occasional intellectuals aren’t on their intellectual A game, and if you still find them interesting for other reasons (for example, because they are close to power, eg. Noonan, or because they are tremendous popular icons, eg. Muhammed Ali), it might make more sense to approach their utterances with tools designed for some purpose other than the careful parsing of complexly layered, intricately referential discourse. The less the ideas “stand on their own,” the more we as historians need to embed our discussion of the ideas into the wider historical content in which they are operating. Talk about Noonan’s role as partisan hack, talk about Muhammed Ali’s ability to both give and take a beating like no other man – because without that context, phrases like “Morning in America” and “Dance like a butterfly/Sting like a bee” frankly just aren’t that deep or interesting.

    So the question is, what’s the appropriate tool. Here I would blend some Hollingerian and some LaCapranian points. LaCapra suggests that there is some criterion of “complexity” or “richness” which indicates whether a text has a enough depth to be worthy of the deep unpacking and scrutiny that is characteristic of intellectual history. Is there enough going on in the text that it bears lengthy exegesis? I think that’s generally right. Hollinger, furthermore, suggests that we pay close attention to the self-recognizing dimension of community of intellectuals.

    Now, Tim, above, asks a fair question with respect to Hollinger’s point, namely “How does one decide who’s in the conversation? Does the evidence come from textual contributions, or from ideas that the historian sees as relevant?” My answer is that usually it’s pretty clear who’s in the conversation and who’s not, based on whether these people cite each other.

    In other words, I’m hardly applying an “arbitrary” or “normative” standard about who’s in and who’s out; on the contrary, I think it’s Rodgers who is being arbitrary about who he has decided to winch into his chapters – sticking together people who have virtually nothing in common other than the methodological tools which Rodgers himself is bringing to their case. (If Rodgers can show me a place where Noonan footnotes Rawls and he footnotes her back – which is what a “conversation” is – then I’ll gladly take back my previous criticism.)

    Finally, let me point out that the Hollingerian definition of a community (or “circle”) of intellectuals is also not (necessarily) a hierarchical concept. You can have many different intellectual circles – you can apply the tools of intellectual history to philosophers, or to literati or to women of letters; or you can apply them to “middlebrow intellectuals (e.g. popular intellectual, bookworm, pundit, the clever)”; or you can apply them to active anti-intellectuals; or you can even apply them, if you insist, to St. Patrick’s Day “plastic” Paddies. I would suggest, per LaCapra, that you’re likely to get decreasing mileage as you move down that list, but go right ahead. But what I object to is the refusal to recognize the difference between Plato and a St. Patrick’s Day Plastic Paddie – which, more or less, is what Rodgers is doing in his book.

  8. Rodgers point, as I understand it, is not to unearth documentation showing that X (Noonan) drew on or was in explicit conversation with Y (Rawls), but to show how broadly shared structures of thinking about the world underwrite an otherwise diverse set of thinkers. He is admittedly if unsurprisingly a bit slippery about exactly what those shared structures are. Nonetheless, it doesn’t strike me as far fetched to think that that there were widespread if largely implicit/background assumptions, viewpoints, beliefs, etc, that collectively characterize much thought and belief in an age, and obviously one needn’t discover a Noonan/Rawls footnote to suggest such links. Perhaps Nils is arguing that we must inherently misunderstand Rawls if we too easily read his texts as symptomatic of their period; that though it could be symptomatic in such a way, the complexity of the texts involved make sure a flyby reading problematic, and that the text may also in some ways transcend such context.

    That sounds right. But nonetheless I think Rodgers technique of crossing the popular with the elite is defensible if we read his claims about any individual text as suggestive rather than conclusive. After all, he is attempting to marshal evidence other than close reading, namely a sort of interpretation of the period drawn from a wide range of texts, such that we should, if his interpretation and evidence is compelling, be disposed to accept that indeed there is a widespread pattern that _likely_ includes Rawls. That is, the broad context, which after all is what Rodgers is trying to establish, counts as evidence in how to read a text and decipher its meaning — that is, it counts as evidence of Rodgers has persuaded us that he is right about the larger pattern he has unearthed. It will be left to later interpreters of Rawls to decide just how much such evidence counts. But Rodgers’ book, I think, should be judged as a preliminary investigation into this period, a first layer of context that other interpretations of the era or of individual works may augment or critique.

    One of my chief hesitations about this book is not that it crosses between high/middle/low so readily, but that its scope is so capacious that I am doubtful that Rodgers is accurately representing many of the thinkers and movements upon which he so briefly alights. As a result, I’m hesitant to put much faith in his general claims. Are we really supposed to believe that he can act as arbiter of thirty years of economic scholarship even as he delves into deconstruction, identity politics, the culture wars, etc, etc? I think a little more modesty of scope is needed, even for someone as gifted as Rodgers. In other words, the book’s ambitions outrun its ability to do justice to the evidence it draws upon. By the time he gets to Rawls I’d already lost the faith necessary to credit his portrait of the shared structures of thought and belief. -B

  9. Dear B: Thank you for the moderating, temperate comment. I find I’m going to have to leave discussions of Rodgers behind for a bit to let my reading catch up with the level of discussion. Even so, with this post I thought it useful to re-present the question of what constitutes intellectual discourse, and who’s in. – TL

  10. We can come up with various ways of trying to define an intellectual or an intellectual discourse, but my sense is that it is most meaningful to discuss such questions only in relation to a given larger project. If your aim, for instance, is to analyze complex discourses or texts, then that also gives you your criteria (is the text/discourse sufficiently complex?). If your aim is to deal with those who had the widest impact in academia, well then there too is your criteria.

    I think the question, as least as your episode with Adler seems to suggest, is what value these different projects have. Saying that Adler is not an intellectual was, I suspect, a shorthand way for saying that your project didn’t strike reviewer as a valuable project for intellectual history because he or she conceives the value of intellectual history as being about, say, unpacking the ideas of elite intellectuals, or tracing the impact of such ideas among academics, etc. (This is what I mean by how the assertion of what constitutes intellectual history acts as a crypto-normative definition of what is or isn’t real history.)

    Without knowing anything about Addler, your project, or your reviewer, I take the reviewer to mean something like, “Look, Addler is neither providing us with deep ideas, nor with complex texts, two traditional centers of value for intellectual history. Nor is he influential in shaping other great thinkers or major centers of intellectual discourse. So what is the point of studying this guy? There are innumerable writers for the middlebrow, so why pick this one? If Addler is not himself adding to the body of great ideas, nor shaping intellectual discourse, why would we want to study him?” The reviewer may or may not be charitably inclined to projects that look at middlebrow culture to gain some insight into middleclass thoughts, etc. But he obviously should be charitably inclined to such a project. Assuming he is, he might then ask, “Did the author give me any reason to think that his work on Addler tells us anything about the middlebrow? Any reason to suspect Addler is any more than a blip?” In other words, a charitable reconstruction of the reviewers point boils down to something like, “It is up to the author to tell us why this guy is worth our time.” (Of course I don’t mean to endorse such criticism as a fair appraisal of your work.)

    I think your argument then about event-oriented intellectualism boils down to this question of value, of why we should care about an episode or Rush Limbaugh’s radio show. We might, of course, care because of the fact it is shaping/reflecting the public mind, although it would be up to whoever was writing that article to justify why and to what extent we can use this particular event as an expression or shaper of larger cultural sentiments – that is, we can’t just assume that whatever RL said is somehow representative of all who listen. (There is also the second-order question how much it matters what RL’s listeners think. Even if we can detail their thoughts, the payoff in explaining history may be relatively marginal.) We are unlikely to find that RL is expressing great ideas, or that he is shaping significant intellectual discourse. Of course we might find that he is shaping the discourse of politicians, but that too is an empirical claim that needs to be justified rather than assumed.

    In short, to write on a middle-brow intellectual one must either 1) make the case that any idea/thinker/text above some minimal threshold of complexity is worth knowing about for its own sake (i.e. its not just great ideas that are intrinsically valuable); or 2) my thinker is valuable in what he shows about some larger group/discourse/event, whether that be the conservative mind or the discourse of politicians, etc. Of course then the question becomes is it important to know about that group/discourse/event — how much explanatory power does knowing about it give historians in making sense of the past. Are you, TL, arguing (1)? -B

  11. Dear “B” (3/19, 1:26 PM),

    Thanks for the long comment. I apologize for this long delay in reply.

    I agree with your point about academic intellectual criteria as related to my (past) project reviewer. Though, my project shows sufficiently (both in the past and now) how Adler interacted with academic intellectuals well after Adler left the academy in 1952. Anyway, that was probably the mindset of that reviewer.

    On your last paragraph, my project goes toward (1), though I have some arguments about (2) as well. If we prioritize (1), the problem then is that “minimal threshold” you mention—e.g. who decides what that is? On (2), Adler’s importance derives from lasting links with cademia, as well as intellectually important cultural enterprises like Encycopedia Britannica (as an editor of the ency, as well as the Great Books set).

    Still, that “minimal threshold” goes to the point of this entire post. Who’s in, and why?

    – TL

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