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:
“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.”
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.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