U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Fundamental Tensions In U.S. History, Intellectual and Otherwise

I don’t normally spend a lot time thinking about essential, or fundamental, tensions in American history. I think positing these tensions is a bit cheap—a reductionist way of sweeping a lot important details, or contingencies, under the rug. I suppose I should think more about these tensions, however, since they are useful. Many well-known historians resort to them. And many solid historians respect others who resort to these shorthands.

For a long time Hegel, for instance, was important—a force to be reckoned with—in terms of theorizing about history. In case you’re forgotten (or are unfamiliar), Hegel discussed a dialectic, or a tension, around the idea of freedom in history. He saw a dialectic of transition, progress actually, in relation to our increased consciousness of freedom. Hegel forwarded the theory that the idea of freedom was coming into being by grades—that there was a teleology of the realization of human freedom in history. See his Philosophy of History for more, or read more about his thought here. I think this is a fair, shorthand way, of characterizing his thought. He saw a tension, and believed it should characterize accounts of Western history. It’s whiggish, but past historians of the United States have applied it in their accounts.

But I’m not here to dwell on Hegel. My present thinking about fundamental tensions has arisen because of some side reading in Reinhold Niebuhr.* This past week I started reading Niebuhr’s 1944 book, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. This is a work of political philosophy, infused with Christian theology, that covers democracy, fascism, cynicism, and optimism in relation to liberal Christian and secular thought. Ray Haberski referenced this work in an earlier UISH post. Ray used Niebuhr’s Children in a discussion of the 1949 film noir classic, The Third Man, to analyze fascism’s success in the context of the growth of democratic liberalism.

I’m intrigued by a fundamental tension Niebuhr attributes to Western societies in Children. He argues that you can view the history of Western political philosophy, and American politics by extension, through the lenses of excessive optimism and extreme cynicism. The former is linked to political liberals (particularly the twentieth-century American variety) through their sharp focus on general welfare. These are the naive “Children of Light.” The latter, the “Children of Darkness,” use our inherent self-interest to manipulate politics through cynicism—playing factions off each other.

This resonated with me. But I probably would’ve held Niebuhr’s theory in tension had I not seen an immediate application this week in the classroom. I’m teaching “The History of American Education” this term, and our first applied reading—after a two-period discussion of the nature and philosophy of history—was in William J. Reese’s America’s Public Schools: From the Common School to “No Child Left Behind” (Johns Hopkins Press, 2001). The book is part of a series edited by Stanley I. Kutler called “The American Moment.”

Normally I don’t dwell on forewords from series editors in my readings with students; even in an academic press series, these are usually puffery—an academic’s attempt at salesmanship. But I decided to have them look at this one. Kutler’s foreword offered at least one intriguing point relating to “fundamental tensions” in American history:

“Schooling also reflects the eternal quest for the proper balance between individualism and community—both “values,” deeply ingrained in the American character, with substantial merit and appeal. Americans, Reese notes [on p. 8], vacillate between the two, yet constantly search for a useful, meaningful reconciliation of any tension between them, favoring an education system that will promote and serve both values” (p. ix).

Just to be painfully explicit, I’m connecting individualism to self interest, and general welfare to community (or the common good).

Just before the crush of the term began, as I was attempting to finish my recent manuscript chapter on Mortimer J. Adler, the great books idea, and reactions to the Sixties, I was dwelling a lot on feelings of alienation in relation to the common good. I was thinking a great deal about how our institutions (public, private, and in-between) navigate the individual-community divide, and how they get off-track and require reform—or even revolution.

In other words, my reading, research, and teaching are coming together to underscore the notion that fundamental tensions, especially this one between self-interest and the general welfare, are not just cheap, reductionist shorthands that ignore contingencies. Indeed, some dialectics and dichotomies are representative of historical realities—the historical contingencies at hand are about these tensions. These tensions feel simple, but have an explanatory power that can’t be denied. Maybe Niebuhr, Kutler, and Reese are right? And maybe I need to take Hegel more seriously than I have in the past?

What “fundamental tensions”—or dichotomies or dialectics—guide your thinking about intellectual history, or American culture generally? How do you work around the problems they present? How do you reckon with their explanatory power in relation to other valid tropes? – TL


* Have you heard about the recent posthumous release of John Patrick Diggins’ Why Niebuhr Now? (University of Chicago Press, 2011)? I’d be interested to hear any early scuttlebutt on the book’s quality, contents, or potential for controversy. – TL

13 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Tim – Interesting post. Perhaps you could give a couple of examples of ‘fundamental tensions’ accounts, and more specifics on the problems they are seen to have.

  2. Bill: I tend to think of tensions as false dichotomies, and therefore dismiss them. But some include liberal-vs-conservative, religion-vs-secularism, elite-vs-working-class, capitalism-vs-socialism, white-vs-black/other, Catholic-vs-Protestant, idealism-vs-practicalism, federalism-vs-states-rights, native-vs-newcomer, etc. I realize that some of these are better than others, but it seems that several of these pairings, put on display with nuance, could be posited has expressive of some fundamental tensions in the history of the United States. Does this help? – TL

  3. Tim–Solid post and interesting course. Of course, I perk up when Niebuhr is invoked. I think I am, in fact, writing a review of recent books on Niebuhr, including the Diggins book, for Reviews in American History. I’ve just begun reading the Diggins book and his point seems to be to rescue the utility of religion in American politics while using Niebuhr to hammer the uses of religion in the last thirty years or so.

    One comment that Diggins makes sort of in passing but relates to your points above, is that Niebuhr especially like Carl Becker’s book The Heavenly City of Eighteenth Century Philosophers because Niebuhr used it to “show that Enlightenment thinkers took assumptions that sustained religion and carried them over into science.” Thus the new secularists also made claims to omniscience. That lead Niebuhr to separate the world not into conservatives and liberals but into those who saw humility as an organizing principle and those who did not.

  4. I spent much of my career in graduate school trying to escape the accommodationist/activist and integrationist/nationalist dichotomies in black history. Sometimes, though, they can be useful, especially when trying to distill complicated subjects down into a straightforward thesis.

    I think dichotomies are bad when they are used to camouflage understanding that is not yet rich.

  5. @Lauren: Perfect. That’s exactly the kind of stuff I’m talking about. In intellectual history, we can talk about the embracing-the-life-of-the-mind VS. anti-intellectual divide. I find it fascinating, but others, I’m sure, think it’s tiresome and worn out. In education, it’s the reformers-vs-union dichotomy that irritates me, but it’s been a valid interpretive lens for about 40 years (or more).

    @Ray: That point about Becker fits, to be sure. I see it in The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. I just finished reading the section where Niebuhr looks at the paradoxes, the tensions, in Adam Smith’s thinking—and therefore the paradoxes built into strict adherents of Smith’s thinking (assumptions about a kind of secularist Providence). And humility seems to be a category that would bridge the self-interest/general welfare divide he posits in the same book. – TL

  6. Great post. I’ve thought quite a bit about the self-interest vs. general welfare tension, particularly in regards to Evangelicalism and Catholicism – especially in the past few years as I moved back to the Catholic Church. I have also tried to relate these thoughts to American culture in general in trying to understand how religion has and could play a role in creating (and changing) those aspects of our culture.

    Niebuhr’s distinction between Children of light and Children of darkness seems very relevant and makes me think of someone like Walker Percy and his focus on alienation. If I’m reading this right, Percy’s thought would stress one side of this tension, self-interest, which shows itself in his focus on alienation when describing America (and the West). His turn to Cathlicism was possibly a way of finidng more community on a personal level in a world he found slanted towards individualism.

  7. Tim – Thanks for some clarification. I wonder how one distinguishes appeals to tensions that amount to “cheap, reductionist shorthands” from those that illuminate something important.

    Your quotation from Kutler’s foreword to Reese suggests some of the issues: there, the notion of an “eternal quest” seems to require that the abstractions of “individualism and community” have trans-contextual, perennial meanings; and, their fundamentality is said to be grounded in a presumably constant “American character.” Can it be that the tensions themselves are generative of, and account for, the contingencies of variable historical contexts, as you suggest; or are historical contexts unique, so that identifying the workings of “universal” tensions really does become distortive?

    Not all “fundamental tensions” are created equal. Some of those you mention have to do with demographic categories, or organized groups, classes or interests – all with some aspect of materiality; while others, such as the appeal to American character and its “values,” have a more ideal character. A couple have to do with terms used by historical actors, such as “liberal” or “conservative,” while others seem more invented. One site for arguing much of this has been debates about the relationship between Hegel and Marx. One also thinks of Dewey’s critique of Hegelian logical formalism and deterministic teleology.

  8. @ Tim P: Where in Walker Percy’s writings (apart from the Moviegoer) do you see Percy’s explicit thinking on alienation? I ask with no motive, just curiosity. I do believe that alienation is an important theme of post-Civil War U.S. history.

    @Bill: Well said in paragraph two of your comment. I would only substitute “American history” for “American character” to give the reader of Kutler (or any other interlocutor on behalf of tensions) an empirical basis. Alas, I do feel there is a chicken-or-the-egg aspect of this that makes it hard to argue against these tensions—though I tend toward the notion that context “distorts” the the dichotomies enough that we have to treat them differently in a historical age. Even so, paradoxically, I find these tensions _useful_ in presenting to students a useable past. Indeed, I’d rather resort to a _border-line_ false dichotomous historical tension ~than~ a one-for-one transference from the past to the present, or vice versa. I guess I like intersubjective historical tensions, that vary with context. This goes toward your notion that not all tensions are created equal; some have a hierarchical and empirical weight that others lack. – TL

  9. Tim –

    Your pedagogical point is well taken, in terms of students’ desire [if they have such] to find cognitive handles for some synoptic overview, some way to order the ma[e]ess of particulars by way of perennial themes. Maybe that’s what you mean by a usable history. Beyond that, the substantive lessons drawn would depend in part on what particular tensions were identified, right? Say, a Niebuhrian irony grounded in a Christian world view, or a Howard Zinnian story of the people vs the powers that be? On the other hand, one might take the view that the fundamental task is to apprise students of the “fundamental tension” between incoherence and organizing narrative, historical particularities and trans-moment generalizations. At this point what comes to mind is a now banished topic – Daniel Rodgers’ Age of Fracture.

  10. Bill: I certainly hope Age of Fracture isn’t a banished topic since I’ll be posting my review of it post-conference! And the way you phrase the tension at work in Rodgers–“between incoherence and organizing narrative, historical particularities and trans-moment generalizations”–is precisely the type of thinking that frames my review. Cheers.

  11. On Rodgers’ book, I don’t know how he could have organized “fracture” any other way. The organization was pre-ordained by the broken trope—i.e. particularities with occasional sustained generalities. You can only abstract from pieces of glass of sufficient size to analyze; the finer shards must necessarily slip through the narrative cracks. – TL

  12. Of course I was being facetious… but maybe the best way to undo banishment is to call attention to it.

  13. Tim, I mispoke a bit. Alienation isn’t as much a focus, dealt with explicitly as in the Moviegoer, but more a consistent theme in his books. I found a Q/A interview segment that sums it up:

    Robyn Leary: It’s been said that your plots all seem to have certain elements in common: A disturbed, alienated man meets a younger woman, who is worse off than he. He solves all her problems and in so doing solves his own. They live happily ever after. Is this accurate?

    WP: A lovely concise summary. I feel you have taken care of me for all time in all textbooks of American Lit. No, really, it’s true, with a couple of qualifications: 1) there’s something else going on besides the love story; 2) it doesn’t always end happily. In fact, the only unambiguous happy ending was in The Second Coming.

Comments are closed.