U.S. Intellectual History Blog

With friends like these…

I arrived in New York a day early (the conference begins tomorrow) in order to spend some hours with Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s Papers at the New York Public Library. I came across a letter written to Schlesinger from John Patrick Diggins, dated February 27, 1995, regarding the National History Standards controversy. I will quote at length without commentary:

“The critique of great civilizations and great men is part of a general critique of intellectual history and the history of ideas… And here is one of the great ironies. The [Standards] regard intellectual history as ‘elitist’ and ‘chauvinist’ because by definition it has dealt with rather towering figures. But at least when one does intellectual history one must defer to those thinkers who are our superiors, must get straight what they thought and believed. In the [Standards], however, the historian is almost free to impose his or her thoughts on workers, slaves, and other subalterns of the past who have no voice of their own… ‘Those who cannot represent themselves, must be represented,’ so said Marx in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Ok, fair enough. The historian can claim to speak for workers and others who left no record to articulate their own thoughts. But it turns out that this so-called ‘history from the bottom up’ is really history from the top down in that it is present-day scholars who now claim to speak for the silent dead. This is elitism with arrogance.”

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Great find. I’m reminded of E. P. Thompson’s statement about “the condescension of posterity” (which I treated skeptically in my “A Means to What?” post). I think there’s considerable merit in what Diggins says.

  2. I can get with some of it, like this: “at least when one does intellectual history one must defer to those thinkers who are our superiors, must get straight what they thought and believed.” But his notion of social/cultural history is a caricature. Elsewhere in the letter Diggins chided the authors of the Standards (especially Gary Nash) for their lack of philosophical curiosity about how historians frame the past. Well, I would say Diggins here demonstrates the same lack, since he mocks social/cultural history without taking seriously its sometimes innovative methodologies for seeking to understand the past in ways that previously eluded historians.

  3. Great find indeed. I was fortunate to take a course on post-Civil War US intellectual history with Diggins maybe a year before he died. This quote is classic Diggins. And I agree, Andrew, his disdain for social/cultural history is troubling, though I think he’s on the money with the leaps some of these historians make without solid evidence in the sources. I guess the difficulty is to distinguish between the “innovative methodologies” which yield impressive results and the pure conjecture, which do not.

    Then again, I think intellectual historians can be guilty of over-emphasizing the importance of intellectuals (even though we love them). Back when I was doing European intellectual history, I recall a professor responding to the question “How did Heidegger influence X when his writing was so dense?” with this answer: “Heidegger’s writing was dense and difficult. It may not have directly influenced anyone other than a handful of philosophers who could understand it. But it’s interesting in its own right.” That was his project, and he didn’t care so much about influence. So as intellectual historians I guess it’s our job to determine which intellectuals and ideas “mattered” versus which ones are just interesting to us. Both projects are valuable, but both are subjective, and we can easily misinterpret intellectuals, though we are less likely to make up evidence that directly relates to their writing, even if we exaggerate their importance.

  4. I remember reading a copy of that double-edged sword letter in 1995, during a session of the OAH on History Standards in Pittsburgh, of all places. Not only was Nash and Lawrence Levine there to argue about standards and Schlesinger, Cheney, Diggins, etc. My department chair had gotten hold of a copy of it, and left a copy of it in my mailbox, asking me to somehow address it in my dissertation (mind you, the man wasn’t even on my dissertation committee). After I read it, I laughed, and put in it my “Miscellaneous” file for stuff related to multiculturalism, but somehow, not. In Diggins’ case, because he had written off the previous 35 or so years of sociocultural history. As someone whose life until the mid-1990s is itself a story of the not-so-silent downtrodden, I found his smug letter elitist, and wanted to strangle him with every character he wrote.

  5. I think I have the opposite response to this than the one Andrew has. I disagree with the kind of hero worship of intellectuals that Diggins leaned toward, a kind of worship that often pushed him to see their thinking as somehow above or beyond history, contingency, and circumstance. But I find his characterization of one of the main proclivities and claims of social history of the ripe late 80s vintage to be pretty sharp. And his critique is not that slaves and workers are not important–it is not an anti-democratic or anti-populist critique at all. It is the assumption that the contemporary historian speaks for them and finds in their oblique presence in the historical record a kind of statement of resistance and agency that bothered Diggins. It is worth noting that as many left intellectuals in the post-WW II era lost their faith in the agency of the contemporary American working class, social history provided them a means to find culture as a form of political expression in the absence of a strong political voice rooted in class politics. We look at 1930s representations of the working class in forms such as the proletarian novel, and we see a sentimentalization, a popular front celebration of a fictional working class. Diggins looked at social history and various other forms of historiographical development in the 1980s (such as the extension of the civic republicanism school), and saw something comparable. And he was not altogether wrong. Sometimes you do people the greatest justice and respect by leaving them alone, and not claiming to speak for them or mobilize them as part of a set of meanings they would never have articulated themselves. Opposition to the brand of social history associated with Herbert Gutman, Gary Nash and others is not opposition to “the people,” and shouldn’t be confused with it.

  6. As I suggested to Andrew just a few hours ago, I think that Diggins saw something difficult to accept in the appropriation of groups that few social historians could understand except on terms that served their own political aspirations. So I agree with the sense that Dan’s has about Diggins in his comment above. I think that letter might be a great opportunity to explore the differences between Diggins and folks in Cheney’s camp; or even the exhaustion that Schlesinger might have felt in fighting the culture wars and the endurance that Diggins had in fighting for something else (though, I will that up to Andrew to name).

  7. Dan makes really good points. I’m anti-hero worship, too, though that’s not how I interpreted this particular quote. I find it valuable and interesting to understand complex thinkers of the past, that’s all. Also, I’m against the over-ascribing of “agency” to people in the past. But again, that’s not how I interpreted the Diggins critique of social/cultural history in this particular quote. The more I think about it, I can see that the context of the letter–culture wars polemic–is not necessarily the same thing as the context of Diggins’s larger body of work.

  8. I would like to think that Diggins’ notion of intellectual history is a caricature — not only because the methodology of following the idea makes more sense to me, but also because having to deal with “rather towering figures” seems a little bit like getting stuck at the grownups’ table for Thanksgiving when everybody’s still sober. Bo-ring.

    Towering figures can’t be avoided, especially when their shadow falls right across the path of the idea (or my path to it). And I don’t mean to imply that I’m not interested in what intellectuals have to say about or contribute to the idea I’m chasing.

    But I hope that the discipline of intellectual history is more and more understood in much broader terms than those of Diggins’s definition. If as an intellectual historian I am expected “by definition” to deal primarily with intellectuals, then part of my project must be to help rewrite that definition. However, I don’t know that I can actually be of much help there.

    Back to the kids’ table I go.

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