This was the catchy title of a critically important session I attended at the AHA this January — important for me, anyhow. And judging by the fact that every seat was taken, and there were people sitting on the floor along the walls and in the aisle, and there were more people standing in the doorway, it was important for a lot of other folks too. How often do you get to hear David Armitage, James Kloppenberg, Darrin McMahon, and Sophia Rosenfeld in conversation together about their methodological approaches to long-range intellectual history, with Lynn Hunt as the MC? That session was the place to be, and I’m glad I had a seat.
Since most USIH blog readers didn’t have a seat in the room, I thought I’d use this blog post to briefly summarize just one highlight of the panel: David Armitage’s description of his methodological approach for doing long-range intellectual history.
Armitage described his current work — a history of the concept of “civil war” — as a “transtemporal history”, governed by a method of “serial contextualism” that is diachronic, not just synchronic, resulting in not a “history of ideas,” but a “history in ideas.”
That’s saying a lot. And, because it was David Armitage talking, it all got said really fast. Happily, he took time to expand upon what he meant by each of these points.
A “transtemporal” history links discrete moments over large stretches of time. Someone tracing the long-range history of the contestation of an idea should be looking for both “continuities and conceptual ruptures.” These moments are “inflection points” in the diffusion, reception, repurposing and transformation of ideas or texts or arguments.
A “serial contextualism” zooms in on these transtemporal moments to closely examine and illuminate the larger historical context in which a particular instantiation of the “big idea” is embedded, or out of which it emerges.
history in ideas
Doing “history in ideas” (rather than a history of ideas) involves telling a long-range narrative of human experience as expressed in human thought.
This last point of Armitage’s, hinging on the seemingly simplest of lexical shifts — substituting one preposition for another — was the most conceptually complex. Alas, my brain was working so hard to grasp the implications of “history in ideas” that I faltered in my note-taking.
However, I think what Armitage presented in this compact phrase was a shorthand summation of observations he had made in the introduction to his talk. In the course of giving a rapid-fire historiographical overview of the “history of ideas,” Armitage took us from Lovejoy to Braudel to so-called “Big History.”
While acknowledging some justice in Skinner’s critique of Lovejoy’s approach as an exercise in “non-contextualism,” Armitage found approaches that treat ideas as epiphenomenal, or as precipitates of presumably deeper forces at work in history, likewise wanting. “Materialism,” Armitage said, “reduces reflection to physiological reflect and intellect to interest.” A materialist view of history trivializes and ultimately dehumanizes the past. “There is little that is more shallow than what we call ‘deep history’ because it evacuates the human mind of its purview.”
In other words — and these are my words, not Armitage’s — the purpose of history is to find and understand the meaning that people have made of their lives and their world. We find that meaning, and so make meaning for own time, by telling the stories of the past through the medium of ideas.
Believe me — it made a lot more sense when David Armitage was saying it.