U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Leavings: Connector Figures, Facilitators, And Peripheral Participants In Intellectual History

[Updated: 2 pm CST]

I’m in the midst of a slow read—a relishing really—of George Cotkin’s Existential America. After having just passed the halfway mark (p. 170 of 284 total), it occurred to me that you, the USIH reader, critic, and thinker, might be up for discussion of a topic that has arisen from that reading. I want to explore something I inelegantly term “connector figures.” These are facilitators and peripheral participants in the various intellectual communities we cover in American history. Bear with me as I meditate out loud, with you, about these figures.

As I see them, connector figures fill the spaces between highly recognized, or dominant, individuals in intellectual history. They occupy the continuum in the social and cultural construction of knowledge. They operate on the fringes of nodes of discussion, or in the outer edges of communities of discourse. They dip in and out of important discourses to provide, or facilitate, discussion of a particular but lesser idea. They are the equivalent of a leaf or branch in the forest of trees of knowledge that we study. Most often we study trunks of various sizes among those trees—Dewey, James, Nietzsche, Emerson, Heidegger, and even the lowly Mortimer Adler.

These leaves, who are often left behind or barely covered in our stories, often end up as leavings in the mills of knowledge. They fill up the cutting room floor.

Historically, and sadly, these leavings are often women—used and abused as mere “helpmeets” in the little clubs, organizations, and circles that form our communities of discourse. They are the editors, organizers, and secretaries in our intellectual establishments. In the formal and informal cultural production of knowledge, they are the lovers, party-goers, and meal companions of “the intellectuals”—the elites and giants of our historiography. These “party functionaries,” if you will, are, I believe, an under-explored part of American intellectual history. In the marketplace of USIH knowledge, they represent a market inefficiency in terms of building cultural capital in the field. In other words, more graduate students should explore and play up the roles of these connector figures.

Several examples come to mind. Let me start by citing a few from my reading in Cotkin. In building his narrative on the existential underpinnings of Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, Cotkin uses the friends of both to obtain and facilitate insight into their intellectual lives. I particularly appreciated a passage about Wright’s friend Dorothy Norman (1905-1997). I hope George won’t mind if I simply reproduce the short relevant paragraph (bolds mine—photograph by Alfred Stieglitz, circa 1932, courtesy of Museum Syndiate):

In the 1940s Wright discovered in French existentialism some answers to the “secret of experience” and representations of the “guilt that he could never get rid of.” He first learned about existentialism through his friend Dorothy Norman. Norman, a wealthy patron of the arts and an important photographer, was intellectually lively and well connected. In 1938 she founded the journal Twice a Year, which she edited until 1948, publishing work by Kafka, Anaïs Nin, Sartre, Beauvoir, Camus, and many other writers. The journal also served as a forum for work by leading anti-fascist writers. Norman met Wright in 1944, and they quickly became friends. At her soirées he encountered important intellectuals such as Hannah Arendt and Paul Tillich. Through Norman, Wright came into contact with Sartre, Beauvoir, and Camus (p. 168).

At the time of writing Existential America, published in 2003, the best information on Norman for Cotkin was her memoir, Encounters: A Memoir (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1987).

Here we see all the traits of a connector figure, beginning symbolically with the title of her own account of herself. Norman was a woman, facilitator, party-goer, and even a patron (i.e. a person of some means). She also has some entry skill or trait. In this case it’s photography. With other it may be editing, or geography, or prior connections with smarter folks. With her “entry trait” she had the means to create encounters—to foster some degree of community, and even discourse.

Another important connector figure in Cotkin’s narrative is Hazel Barnes. Indeed, Barnes is so important to the popularization of existentialism in America that she receives substantial attention from Cotkin—eight full pages (pp. 151-158) in a chapter discussing the creation of an existential canon. Barnes is important enough that I have to qualify my connector figure category. Because I’m writing off-the-cuff, let’s divides our connectors into degrees of importance. Barnes is a “first degree connector,” while Norman occupies the second or third tier of facilitator figures.

Why? For starters, Barnes was no mere party-planner, patron, or amateur photographer (with apologies to photographers). Barnes was the first translator, into English, of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness (pp.vii-xliii herein). She connected existentialism to American pragmatism, “championed” a prominent place for Beauvoir in the existentialism’s development, and wrote a popularization titled An Existentialist Ethics (1967) that revealed political commitments in existentialism—commitments that would empower New Left youth and radicals. So Barnes is no mere connector figure.

Yet, in building his argument for her important, Cotkin is only able to cite Barnes’s books, her memoir The Story I Tell Myself: A Venture in Existentialist Autobiography, and one intellectual history: Ann Fulton’s Apostles of Sartre. To be fair, Fulton mentions Barnes 33 times (23 in text and 10 http://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifin the notes). And Barnes makes brief appearances in Howard Brick’s Age of Contradiction and even Bruce Kuklick’s A History of Philosophy in America. So in the past 15 years Barnes has been increasingly recognized as a pivotal figure in the development and popularization of post-war, French veins of existentialism in America. So Barnes is clearly a first degree facilitator.

To show that connector figures are not limited to women, in my work Clifton Fadiman functions as a first-degree facilitator. Fadiman published several books, and was a popular book critic and reviewer. Fadiman is covered in Janice Radway’s A Feeling For Books (North Carolina, 1997), Joan Rubin’s The Making of Middlebrow Culture (North Carolina, 1992), and other works. Nevertheless, he is always a helpmate to others, or just the member of a circle. He’s never the trunk of a tree, and never considered thoughtful in his own right.

But Fadiman pre-read a great deal of Mortimer Adler’s books. Fadiman was a fantastic editor, with a great sense for audience and the off-putting phrase. He was candid and pointed in his commentary. As a Britannica editor (a favored hire by Adler and William Benton), Fadiman wrote extensive letters on proposed projects and long commentaries on encyclopedia entries. He was a Britannica functionary, par excellance. Yet Fadiman is absent from most intellectual histories—or is de-emphasized like Barnes or Norman. Worse yet, he often gets the horrific appellation that kills further USIH conversation: pseudo-intellectual.

Now I turn to you: What lines do you draw between pseudo-intellectuals, facilitators, and connector intellectuals? What degree of importance (in my first-through-third construct) must be assigned in order to get a better treatment in your narratives? Where are the secretaries, administrative assistants, and party planners in your USIH accounts? Finally, what of race and ethnicity in these roles? That conversation was implicit in my sampling from Cotkin on Wright, Ellison, and Norman. But how does race function in relation to facilitation? How do you distinguish between the trunks of the trees in the forest of your narratives? Which leaves get attention, and which don’t?- TL

16 Thoughts on this Post

  1. If you found this post riddled with errors during your first viewing, I think I’ve corrected most of them now. It may still be a lousy read, but it shouldn’t assault your inner editor this time around. 🙂 – TL

  2. The Enlightenment is filled with such figures. It’s hard for me to name names, though, as that’s not really the part of the Enlightenment I’m interested in. Dena Goodman’s work on the salons might fit here, but I suspect she’d argue for a more decisive role for the salonnières than being “connector figures.” That’s just one example. So might the research into the various academies, coffee houses, and other “spaces” that constituted the “Republic of Letters.”

    “Where are the secretaries, administrative assistants, and party planners in your USIH accounts?”

    Nowhere, I guess. I’m pretty much a first-order figure guy. Or maybe a first-order idea guy would be a more accurate description. But it’s an interesting question, which leaves you turn over, which get ignored, what’s a branch, and what’s a twig. A trunk on one tree, if grafted onto another, can be a twig. I work on Rousseau, and he’s a forest in his own right. I ignore large swathes of it, just as others ignore the swathes I explore. I really think it depends on what your subject is, and how you’re approaching it.

    Intellectual history is probably filled with these “role players,” to borrow an analogy from baseball (in keeping with the Pujols thread). Think of the forgotten students of Plato and Aristotle who must have spread their ideas. Think of their editors in Alexandria, who compiled the corpuses (corpi?) of their writings in the form we have today. Think of teachers in universities lecturing over the centuries. Not exactly what you have in mind, but indispensable.

  3. Tim, your post reminded me of the book Creating Minds by Howard Garner, the educational psychologist who studied the lives of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, and Gandhi to determine what made them creative. One factor he found is the presence of a significant support person who believes in their ideas. It could be a mentor, editor, lover, or friend. So much for the self-made man or woman.

  4. @Varad: I appreciate the Dena Goodman reference. Certainly Cotkin would argue for Hazel Barnes as having more than a “connector figure” role. This brings us to a consideration of the role of intellectual popularizers. Those “translators of high thought” are often as important, or more important, than the originators of systems or schools of thinking. Those popularizers are sort of like AAAA baseball players—to continue our baseball analogy. 4A players are better than the highest farm team players (AAA) but are clearly less talented than major leaguers. In my schema above, these AAAA players are first-order connector figures. But labeling someone like Barnes an AAAA player is terribly unfair to her.

    Obviously I’m very much interested in the social history of knowledge formation. I believe the low-level folks contribute, and I want to know how much.

    @Lilian: Thanks for the reference. Folks like Garner, who study for the sake of usability, sure come in handy at times. This also points to the truth that women’s history, for instance—whether by autobiographies or actual histories—is absolutely essential to studying intellectual history. Cotkin’s book is so much the better for its meditations on Hazel Barnes, Simone de Beauvoir, Dorothy Norman, etc. – TL

  5. Why would “women’s history” need to be something to know in order to do “intellectual history”? I am sure you’re making a heuristic distinction in keeping with the disciplinary boundaries of the academy. But much if the appeal of intellectual history is the freedom it gives to reconceptualize history across and despite those boundaries.

  6. The need to know women’s history (or to know something of it) is implicit in the freedom you note (and with which I agree) to reconceptualize. But to redefine boundaries you must know what the old boundaries were. Plus, we benefit from the uncovering done by the pioneers in those subfields. I think what you mean is that intellectual historians should feel free to sample–to integrate and create composites—from all older and existing subfields in order to tell our stories about ideas and the history of thought. – TL

  7. Fair enough.

    I certainly do not mean that “women’s history” isn’t important.

    But I think the boundary that most needs reconceptualizing — for intellectual historians — is that of intellectual history itself. “Intellectual history” shouldn’t be seen as the social/cultural history of yet another group of people.

    It’s too easy to see these subdisciplines — “women’s history” and “African American history” and “queer history” and “labor history” and “intellectual history” and whatever else — as just different ingredients that can be combined to complement each other in whatever dish I’m serving up. The main ingredient is my subdiscipline, whatever that is, and then I pull in some of this and some of that into the mix, let the flavors infuse each other, and I have this historically nuanced and sophisticated dish.

    (And no, I’m not using a culinary metaphor because you mentioned “women’s history.” Men cook too — men besides Gordon Ramsay and Wolfgang Puck. It’s just because it’s lunchtime, and there’s not a damn thing to eat at my house, and I’m too overloaded with stress over my writing to do anything about it right now. Yet still I find time to comment on blog posts…)

    Anyway, the whole approach of doing the history of this group — “intellectuals” — in a way that is informed by the history of this other group — “women” — seems to me to be methodologically inadequate. Or, rather, it seems to not take full advantage of the methodological resilience available through approaching intellectual history as the cultural history of ideas.

  8. Tim, I thought of mentioning vulgarisation, as the French call it. It means something like popularization, but is of a higher intellectual and cultural/aesthetic order than is conveyed by the English term. The person who does it is a vulgarisateur, which also has no proper equivalent in English. Voltaire was Newton’s vulgarisateur in France, to name one of the great examples in all of intellectual history. For those who can read French, the French Wikipedia article on the idea frames it very well. http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vulgarisation

    I’m on LD’s side re: “group” history and intellectual history. That was quite the fad in Enlightenment historiography about two decades ago. Goodman’s book is one of the prime examples of the phenomenon, and because of it much poorer as history. It starts out with a polemical stance, and never gets out of it. When you start from the premise that “cultural history is feminist history,” whatever you do won’t be history. At least not as Goodman practices it.

    “Anyway, the whole approach of doing the history of this group — ‘intellectuals’ — in a way that is informed by the history of this other group — ‘women’ — seems to me to be methodologically inadequate. Or, rather, it seems to not take full advantage of the methodological resilience available through approaching intellectual history as the cultural history of ideas.”

    Bingo! Intellectual history has to be about ideas, first and foremost. Thankfully, after three decades of being about everything but, Enlightenment historiography has finally been returning to ideas over the last five to ten years. The fact that LD says the same about intellectual history in general is a hopeful sign that such an attitude is taking hold in academia about intellectual history in general, and not just the Enlightenment.

  9. Varad, thanks for the Amen (or the Bingo!). Of course my own thinking on intellectual history as being about ideas is itself an idea that has made its way to me via various channels in a multi-stranded chain of transmission that shares much with Tim’s conceptualization of trunk and branches, twigs and roots, etc. Through the xylem and phloem of the academy, I ended up latching on to a very good idea, for which I can’t take credit as being mine but which I certainly intend to make my own in terms of methodology.

    One of Tim’s threads from March centered around similar questions, and an anonymous commentor on that thread suggested an article by Dan Wickberg on “Intellectual History v. the Social History of Intellectuals.” That was a good read — helped me make sense of what I am supposed to be doing as an intellectual historian.

  10. There’s a link to it in that other comment thread. I just Googled it back in March. I think I posted a link in the comment thread back then. Per Google, here’s the citation info:

    Rethinking History 5:3 (2001), pp. 383-395.

    You can view that journal through Taylor and Francis online. Don’t know if it’s paywalled, but you might have access through a library.

  11. @Varad & LD: So we return, in a sense, to that old tension between the “history of ideas” (in the tradition of Lovejoy) and “intellectual history” (as a more people-grounded endeavor).

    I like to see myself as trying to find a sweet spot—via occasional intellectuals, connector figures, and events (or événement if I may quote myself)—between the larger, inclusive, sufficiently vague ideas (or even a weltanshauung, sometimes) and a social history of intellectuals (what I call intellectual history as a shorthand). I suppose it’s come to a point where I should stop using that shorthand, for the sake of precision. Plus I don’t want to be off-putting, to either of you or others.

    On the “this-group-being-informed-by-that-other-group” heuristic (if I’m using that word in the way that LD intended), well, maybe it’s a core-periphery thing in the intellectual life (if I may borrow from Immanuel Wallerstein). We have core participants in communities and discussions of ideas/topics, and then we have interlopers, occasional intellectuals, facilitators, and connector figures (first-to-third degree). Participants from the latter are not necessarily from out groups—a point I tried to make by citing Clifton Fadiman. So it’s not always a case of including another ethnic/racial/gender group in a way that respects constructed categories (group addition history). With my category contributions, actually, I’m trying to build a theoretical position that might incorporate old groups (under new names) but respects they way that discourse happens, and the way that ideas are disseminated or distributed.

    I need to grade now, so I’m going to have to drop out of this thread. But I hope I’ve made myself at least a bit more clear. – TL

  12. Thanks, LD. I searched for Dan Wickberg on Google Scholar and found a PDF of the article. Unfortunately, I don’t have access to Rethinking History. There’s lots more there I’d be interested in. One of the perils of being an “independent” scholar.

  13. The Wickberg article articulates the importance of understanding the difference between intellectual history and the social history of intellectuals. Intellectual historians should be committed to following ideas where ever they go and articulated by whom ever shows up. The problem of course is that we tend to look in the obvious places and we can often leave women and other less prominent people out. It’s a cultural bias that we must be on constant guard against. On the other hand, if we are committed to the history of ideas then we can’t just trump up influence when it’s not deserved just to be inclusive. Judging what is significant influence is the work of the professional historian, a challenge for all of us.

  14. Using “influence” as a criterion for including a particular historical subject is too narrow, and simply replicates the structural problem of doing a social history of intellectuals. Indeed, I suspect that intellectual historians looking primarily for “influence” might be the disciplinary equivalent of social historians looking primarily for “agency.” Is an “influential thinker” just an intellectual by another name? Looking for who is influential works for one particular kind of question within intellectual history, but not for intellectual history as broadly conceived.

    The aim of intellectual history, as I understand it, is not to uncover “influence” but to get at meaning — to understand conceptual frameworks, to uncover epistemic claims, to “situate the meaning of ideas or texts in relationship to broader intellectual contexts — other ideas and texts…” (388).

    Wickberg’s focus on texts is meant as an antidote to the concern with “who’s in and who’s out” (which was the title of Tim’s earlier thread from March). The texts we use will depend upon the questions we ask. If your questions center around tracing influence, then figuring out who has been influential in the development, transmission, or transformation of a certain idea makes great sense. But that’s just one avenue of inquiry for intellectual history, and in some sense it is the one most prone to mistaking intellectual history for the history of intellectuals.

    Wickberg’s article seems to me to be something of a tonic against the idea that only what — or who — has been influential is worthy of our attention. Instead, everything is up for grabs because “every historical document of whatever form instantiates ideas….What distinguishes intellectual history from social history is not the documents or people it studies, but the way in which it conceives of the documents it uses to reconstruct the mental worlds of the past” (391).

    In this post about methodology, Tim asks a question for intellectual historians in general: on what basis certain thinkers should be included/excluded, on what basis they should be ranked in importance. But the implicit assumption is that all intellectual historians are looking (or should be looking) for something like “importance” or “influence.”

    Meaning, epistemic resonance, conceptual coherence or rupture within an era — this is, I think, closer to what intellectual history in the broadest sense about. To focus on influence — however influential influence may be! — would be to mistake the part for the whole.

  15. I mean “to focus on influence” as a methodological criterion for intellectual history in general would be a mistake. Looking for influence is, of course, a perfectly suitable way of framing a particular inquiry.

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