U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Big Ideas for Everyone

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.”

10 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I’ve only skimmed Maciag’s essay, but a couple of things did catch my eye. Or, rather, didn’t catch my eye and where hence conspicuous by their absence.

    First, the whole “dead white males” thing is so hopelessly out of date and cliched now that anyone talking about it comes across as the equivalent of one of those Japanese soldiers coming out of the jungles to surrender thirty years after WWII ended. Enough already.

    Second, he makes one brief mention of the Cambridge school approach as a “linguistic perspective” that challened traditional assumptions about doing intellectual history. Probably so, but one can easily argue that the Cambridge school itself is a form of intellectual history. There’s a whole edifice built around it, not least Cambridge UP’s Ideas in Context series, which has published several dozen books of what can only be described as intellectual history.

    Third, he utterly neglects one of the biggest controversies in American intellectual history of the last several decades, the debate about liberalism and republicanism in the American Revolution and Early Republic. If that’s not intellectual history, I don’t know what is. You could fill a small library with all the titles that dispute generated.

    I think you’re quite right, Andrew, that his pessimism is misleading, even if it’s not quite unwarranted. Intellectual history is back in a big way in certain fields. To take the field I know best, the Enlightenment, the only reason people are proclaiming “the Enlightenment is back” is because scholars have started treating it as intellectual history again, and not the kind of social stuff Dan Wickberg criticized in his Rethinking History essay. And, of course, people who study political theory and the history of political thought (the latter especially is rather close to intellectual history, if you ask me, and is where Cambridge is big), would be quite surprised to learn intellectual history had fallen off the face of the Earth. What were they doing the last thirty years?

    His strictures about what intellectual history was are probably valid. But they’re much less so for what intellectual history is now and where it’s going. In that sense, Maciag’s essay suffers from the defects of the snapshot: the subject keeps moving. But that’s a good thing for us, because if it stopped, so would we.

  2. Maciag’s criticisms of intellectual history are at least thirty years out of date and it is frankly bizarre that the RAH would publish a piece rehashing them in 2011. Intellectual historians were aware of the problems he mentions and addressed them at the Wingspread Conference in 1977. And, while it may be true that intellectual history per se may still have little cache in the discipline at large (take, for example, the history of professional philosophy), it has played a central role in a number of the scholarly trends of recent years (take, for example, the recent history of post-1945 conservatism).

  3. Andrew, I think this is a fair assessment of the Maciag piece. And you are correct, I believe, much along the same lines that Bill Fine suggested in his earlier comment on Tim’s thread: one can (almost) concede the characterization of intellectual history at its high-water mark (though I am not sure that Maciag has quite put his finger on the source of the sub-discipline’s prestige). The problem is in the historiographic accounting (or lack thereof) of subsequent developments.

    It just seemed that Maciag’s narrative of intellectual history’s fall from grace was too generic and too neat. He made broad, sweeping claims about historiographic shifts and what they meant, but the claims were unsupported.

    Varad invoked Dan Wickberg’s essay from Rethinking History, and justifiably so. I think that piece gives a better accounting for the developing “estrangement” between intellectual history and social/cultural history. But it also makes a good case for the continued viability of intellectual history, not as “rescued” or reconfigured from its “glory days,” but as following the same methodological and philosophical commitments that have characterized it all along: a certain way of understandings texts, a certain way of approaching ideas. Those ways may have fallen out of fashion, but they have not fallen out of practice.

    Indeed, the Historically Speaking forum on the state/future of intellectual history (which you reviewed here provides what I think is a more realistic assessment of intellectual history’s present challenges and promises.

    But back to Maciag’s essay — two things in particular seemed out of place to me.

    First, his discussion of historiography as not leading, but following, conceptual shifts, was either deliberately coy or incredibly un-self-aware. His very ability to make that assertion — that changes in historiography occur because of more broader epistemic shifts in the culture — and to have it make sense, seems to me to depend in large part upon the practice of intellectual history as a history of sensibilities, along the lines of Wickberg, Daniel Rodgers, et. al.

    The second problematic aspect of the essay for me was the odd move to separate “ideas” from “beliefs.” This seems to me to be a back-door concession to the notion that intellectual history has somehow come down from its “high” position and is making do with the less (intellectually) prestigious but no less fruitful ground that has been left to it.

    I agree with Anonymous. I think Maciag’s essay reflects a certain stereotypical view of what intellectual history is/does that hasn’t been true in decades.

  4. “Those ways may have fallen out of fashion, but they have not fallen out of practice.”

    A succinct and incisive formulation.

  5. I take from Drew Maciag’s piece that the cultural prominence — or the hegemony — of intellectual history broadly has diminished. Isn’t this his argument–that the influence and significance of the work done on the “American mind,” etc., beyond academia in the storied and robust heyday of public intellectualism in mid-twentieth-century America is dead and gone? This might all be baloney (I mean, he might misstate the relevance of intellectual history to the extra-academic intellectual life of the nation and he may be trading on a nostalgic and inaccurate sense of the age of public intellectuals), but it would suggest the defense of the continuing prevalence of intellectual-history style methods in the profession is besides the point.

    Maciag’s point tracks with that of the “Rochesterians” (or the Laschites?) that we historians must aspire to be broad-ranging and publicly engaged cultural and social critics and insofar as we build and maintain academic empires only, we fail in our missions.

    I find the point valid, if I have it right: There was a time when people assumed “ideas” drove historical progress (that “ideas have consequences,” by the way a formulation and book title that Richard Weaver evidently disliked — it came from his editor, was it W. T. Couch?) and that something called a collective “mind” could exist, and so intellectual history in grand style flourished. When the premises collapsed, so did the broad cultural authority of intellectual historians. Now, we are squirreled away in our public but marginal coffeehouses reading poetry and talking ideas.

    Andrew, now that we are out of the “postmodern moment,” in what new moment are we, or must we wait for your book to find out?

  6. Paul: Points taken. The Maciag piece had a Laschian feel to it, which is why I didn’t dislike it as much as some of the commenters, such as LD. To your question–“in what moment are we”? Honestly I have no idea. But when I read explicitly or obviously postmodern texts, or when I read critiques of postmodernism, they feel so dated. They don’t feel contemporary. So I think we’re in a new moment. I don’t really know what that is, though. Do you?

  7. Andrew: What moment are we in today? That’s a good question. I would have thought postmodern, if there is validity to the notion of a “moment” at all or to terms like “modernism” or “postmodernism” to describe them. I think of “modernism” as a description of a discourse among intellectuals defined most easily by the set of concerns they share, or questions they ask (the autonomy of the artist, the nature of freedom in a mass society — that sort of thing). Postmodernism I read as a pretty direct response to the values modernists promulgated in answering these questions. So, we get irreverence (versus the high seriousness of modernists), pastiche and bricolage (versus the insistence on high and low), the death of the author, and anti-foundationalism.

    Is there an elite discourse that goes much beyond this? Postmodern texts may be stale, but perhaps that means we are on the tail-end of a moment, and the reigning ideas and attitudes amongst the elite are reaching exhaustion. I suppose, if anything, one would look towards the convergence of globalization and the electronic media producing a culture and politics defined by fragmentation, extreme disaggregation, DIY attitudes and “Arab Spring”/OWS leaderless revolution, the creation of ever more refined and micro-level identities and niches, mashing up and intertextuality and multiculturalism taken to a much higher level.

    Aside from this, I’ve got nothing.

  8. Having taken another look, I’m inclined to think Maciag’s essay deserves closer attention than I gave it at first reading, though I wouldn’t completely retract my earlier comments.

    I see it as an attempt to historicize the recent history of intellectual history, a complement and perhaps parallel to Dan Wickberg’s article, but Maciag goes further in putting intellectual history into the context of macro, indeed epochal, developments. To be sure, he traces a “turn of historiographical events,” but for him, “historiography follows rather than leads social, political, or cultural reorientations.” [746, 748]

    He speaks to the fracturing of the historical profession, and dilution of intellectual history in cultural history, but finally claims that the “fundamental breakdown of comforting and optimistic beliefs…more than anything else, wilted the bloom off the intellectual-history rose,” leading to Wiebe’s “’distended society, without a core.’” [748, 750]

    It seems that Maciag’s deepest concern is less the marginalization of intellectual history than its reduced stature as a metonym of civilizational decline. Here his distinction between ideas and beliefs is important. Beliefs are those ideas that “represent firm convictions: especially those related to an intellectual, ideological, or religious worldview,” and changes in beliefs “could have major consequences for society at large.” So we’re important.

    Of intellectual history, he says the “critical contribution…and…larger relevance has been… its examination of beliefs,” because “civilization… depends on shared beliefs and common (or at least closely related) values, and the most serious clashes within or between civilizations are over beliefs.” [748] His animus is directed at those who would see indicators of a revitalized intellectual history as more than local epiphenomena. [At one point he seems to conflate the discipline and its subject matter — in the text he says its influence in ‘the broader historical community’ has been reduced, but in n.5 he compares it to “poetry’s relative decline as a component of broader American culture”]

  9. continued …

    Andrew is at first cautious in assessing the apparent resurgence of intellectual history in the profession, particularly as measured by the S-USIH and its “enthusiastic and effective promoters.” But then he goes on to claim that Maciag’s pessimism misses the broad advance of bigness — big ideas, big books, and big distinctions between the “old” and “new” forms of intellectual history — all somehow bound up with the big claim that the post “moment has passed.” Paul disputes the suggestion that the post is past, seeing instead “the tail-end of a moment,” perhaps implying more skepticism about a grand future for intellectual history.

    This is all quite fascinating, but I’m not sure what the adjective means here, or how I can be sure that all the big items make up a single [I won’t say it] complex.

    Like any other good American, I’m inclined to think that bigger is better, but I’m worried in this case that we might get more than we bargain for if we jump on the holistic bandwagon and adopt Maciag’s deep assumptions as our starting point — I mean after we’ve gotten over our pique at how he reduces our “agency.”

    I’m probably making way too much of this, but I get a little anxious when people start appealing to civilizational complexes of beliefs and values, and harken back to those good old days when experts could be trusted, and ideas were not only clear and distinct, but sharp weapons for the struggle. If the renewal of big intellectual history implies a regime in which it’s central to the articulation of consensual core beliefs and values that fit us to define and defend ourselves against internal and external enemies, then count me out. I’ll light out for the territories, or go into geology or something.

    But it’s hard to know whether all these items would actually be required for a slightly larger intellectual history, and of course that’s the problem with big historical contextualism and civilizational complexes.

    Sure, many elements comprised or were constitutive of the mid-20th century historical context that Maciag describes, but did they all have to be just as they were in order for intellectual history to possess the authority he describes? Is a recovered stature for intellectual history dependent on a restoration of some Camelot of confident liberalism? Is it bound up with American exceptionalism, or a belief in progress, or national character?

    As a concluding thought, it occurs that if we accept historical moments as totalities in this way, then “the past” is always, well, over — it has no presence. And if we believe that every moment has a unique, non-repeatable perfection, or we’re not assured that each is better than the last, we’re left with a paralyzing sort of nostalgia.

  10. “I like intellectual history that moves back and forth between elite and popular realms.”

    This is music to my ears. When I started graduate school about a decade ago, the cultural historians and social historians at Illinois were always duking it out–or at least pretending to, as they were actually rather congenial with each other. Both sides, though, kept telling people like me, who were interested in intellectual history, that we were essentially elitists and that our field had little relevance. I thought that there must be a way to do intellectual history in such a way that it challenged this dismissive formulation. So I wrote a dissertation that examined Progressive Era intercollegiate football in order to better understand the way that (primarily university-based) intellectuals related to popular culture and fit into larger society, as well as how that relationship changed over time. I try to take both cultural and intellectual history seriously, and show how the elite and popular realms interacted–or, at times, did not.

    Thanks for this interesting post. I hope it gets us to start thinking about the ways that cultural and intellectual history, while certainly not the same, might complement one another.

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