Last week Paul Murphy briefly mentioned Drew Maciag’s article in Reviews in American History: “When Ideas Had Consequences—Or, Whatever Happened to Intellectual History?” I recommend this short, provocative essay to all USIH readers. It makes three excellent points:
1) That intellectual history was at the apex of the historical discipline in mid-century America because it reflected the grand narrative of American modern progress, and because it reflected a time when powerful people believed ideas had consequences. Maciag writes:
in mid–twentieth-century America there was a virtually instinctive belief in the agency of applied ideas among the educated public, policymakers, academics, and historians. In part, this carried forward the nineteenth-century fascination with scientific and technological progress, which, contrary to myth, was not destroyed by the world wars. It was also a continuation of the somewhat teleological belief in the advancement of civilization thanks to a steady accumulation of knowledge: not just more information, but greater theoretical comprehension. The postwar faith in the collective benefits of higher education and of specialized expertise were examples of this, as were optimistic expectations about economic growth, public health, and less tangible “quality of life” enhancements. Human reason, now synergized into complex systems and commanding cutting-edge technology, could finally liberate people not only from unnecessary toil or danger, but from the equally cruel hindrances of customary ignorance.
2) That intellectual history as it was defined in mid-century America—the historical record of elite, mostly political thinkers—declined as the idea of progress, or more importantly, the idea of progress engineered by white men, fell into disrepute.
3) That we should be wary of celebrating a revival of intellectual history. On this matter, Maciag implicitly calls us out in a footnote:
I would liken the plight of intellectual history to that of poetry in America. In both cases there are apparent signs of revitalization, but they are deceiving. Poetry readings to aficionados in coffee houses or bookstores, the exponential growth of graduate creative writing programs, or an increase in the absolute number of published poets have done little to stem poetry’s relative decline as a component of broader American culture. So too, the appearance of a new journal, blog, or conference on intellectual history is no accurate indicator of the weight it carries outside its own circle.
This last point is important to keep in mind. We should remain sober-minded about the birth of S-USIH, and about the growing interest in our conference. These are probably not accurate barometers of intellectual history’s growing significance in the discipline. Rather, it’s evidence that some of us are very enthusiastic and effective promoters.
Yet, despite Maciag’s good points, the essay has problems. For one, although it is good on mid-century historiography, it is void of later historiography. A thumbnail, post-1970s historiographic overview complicates the declension model. What became known as cultural history was, in fact, the morphing of traditional intellectual history into something different. Cultural historians found ideas everywhere, in new forms of evidence, not just in the texts of political philosophers. Thus, the argument can be made that intellectual history did not die, it changed and spread out into other sub-fields.
Of course, I would be the first to argue that cultural history is not precisely the same thing as intellectual history, and that something was indeed lost with the decline of the old model. I like intellectual history that moves back and forth between elite and popular realms. I like that intellectual history affords me the space to pause on important and difficult philosophical texts, often written by elite thinkers, in ways that cultural history does not.
This leads me to my next critique of Maciag. His pessimistic conclusion, that intellectual history will not return to prominence because the discipline, and the ways in which knowledge is organized, is too fractured, misses recent trends. Maciag seems to think we’re still living in a postmodern moment. I think this moment has passed. An increasing number of people, including intellectuals and scholars, are returning to big ideas. Historians are once again writing big books. Close to home, think about David Sehat’s book The Myth of American Religious Freedom, which is big in both ideas and scope. Big is back. And with it, I think intellectual history is making a comeback as well, because intellectual history is one of the better ways to synthesize history. If I am right about this—it’s an open question—then we must think hard about how the new intellectual history will be different from the old. As I told The New York Times reporter who covered our last conference: “Big ideas affect everybody.”
Perhaps the S-USIH slogan should be: “Big ideas for everyone.”