U.S. Intellectual History Blog

What’s the Big Idea?

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.

transtemporal history

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.

serial contextualism

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.

14 Thoughts on this Post

  1. LD,

    What of Sophia Rosenfeld? What did she discuss? What was her contribution/s to the panel?

    I ask because I’ve been intrigued by her work since reading, last summer, her history of common sense in America. Indeed, I just revisited it a week ago in revising portions of the mss chapter I wrote last summer. I’m impressed with her work, though that’s the only book I know of from her.

    On Armitage’s points, fascinating. I think he’s just laid out the tenets for a “neo-Lovejovianism school” of historiography. It goes toward some blog (and personal) discussions I’ve had with Dan Wickberg about how we can look to Lovejoy for inspiration. Very cool.

    – TL

  2. Armitage presented an overview of this project at Georgetown in 2008. The title was “Civil War from Rome to Iraq: A History in Ideas.” But, looking through my copy of the paper that was discussed, the subtitle is as far as he got with the “history in ideas” half of it. So little impact did it make that I had to check to see if he’d mentioned it at all. The paper is devoted wholly to sketching out the idea of bellum civile. I wonder if in the fall of 2008 the history in ideas aspect wasn’t as developed. Perhaps that simply wasn’t what he was going to talk about that day, but I don’t remember it coming up in his comments or the discussion at all.

    I think I get the gist of “history in ideas,” but we’ll have to see how he works it out in print to grasp fully its implications. Maybe he’ll publish an intermediate piece where he exlains this further. I like this summation, if it’s accurate: “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.” Would it make more sense to call that “history through ideas”? Either way, I think the idea (sorry) is that we find history in/through those meanings people have found/imposed on their lives and world.

    At any rate, we all should be heartened that a big wig like Armitage is doing this sort of thing. It’s proof intellectual history ain’t dead yet.

  3. Thanks so much for this post, LD! Had I been at the (main bit) of the AHA this year, I would definitely have tried to squeeze into that session! I look forward to seeing the substance of Armitage’s work on civil war. I was really struck teaching Hobbes and Locke (for the first time) last semester how absolutely central the English Civil War (and its echo that resulted in the Glorious Revolution) was to all of our modern, liberal political conceptions…and yet how utterly unimaginable actual, violent civil war has become in our own society (despite the nearly constant presence of the rhetoric of civil war in our politics).

    (On a personal note, I knew David Armitage when he was a Harkness (Graduate) Fellow in my graduate department. Unbelievably smart and learned guy whose mind–and voice–seem always in fifth gear!)

  4. Tim, on the Rosenfeld paper, see my comment on this post.

    Varad, I think “history in ideas” is an accurate and astute description of a methodology with which we’re probably already familiar. In fact, Kloppenberg followed Armitage, and seemed to assent to the aptness of the characterization to describe the medium or the atmosphere or the fabric out of which he and his colleagues are constructing their narratives.

    Doing a “history in ideas” might mean seeking to reconstruct the mental maps that people relied upon to make sense of their world. Over the long sweep (Roman republic to war in Afghanistan), the commitment to “serial contextualism” would result in the (re)drawing of a whole series of such maps, and would involve the historian taking care to point out when, how, where and why the conceptual boundary lines were redrawn over time.

    Ben, you’re welcome. This panel and the meetup at the Billy Goat Tavern were the brilliant bookends on my madcap extravaganza of adventure at the AHA.

  5. While I quiver when attempting to present my own ideas among those whom I should revere, one historical concept explodes when inspected under “serial contextualism.” That is “temporality.” As I understand it, the conception of time frames and structures our entire existence. Through “transtemporal history” we can see how the human conception of time radically shifts in various contexts. The English Civil War for example, as Ben Alpers pointed out above, frames how many Europeans in the 18th century understood the political state, its effective longevity, and its inherent values. The American Revolution spoke to another version of temporality that exonerated the past of its misdeeds for a rebirth in America (vis-a-vis the ideas of Locke, Hobbes, Madison, et al).

    For my own work (presented @ gildedempire.wordpress.com) on temporality and how it shapes individual, group, and regional identities, transtemporal history and serial contextualism offers a great way to conceptualize the societal structures and the long-term cultural landscape involved in constructing identities in the 19th century.

    One methodological problem I have been dealing with in this regard is how do individuals and groups understand this temporal construction of their lives? In contemporary phrasing, how deep do individual and group memories travel? Do San Franciscan memories in the 1890s for instance perceive a link between themselves and the American Revolutionaries? If we are to accept that the English Civil War impacted 19th century American thought in significant ways (which I do believe is true), how are these ideas transmitted or transmuted beyond the literati whom digest these concepts and ideas regularly?

    For me, I follow David Gillis and Robert Rydell in that these ideas can be transmuted cross-class through public and group commemorations, celebrations, and in some ways elections.When James D. Phelan speaks of the “Burgher Spirit” and Grecian democracy, he assumes his audience is well versed in these concepts and ideas. Thus, how does a laboring mechanic in 1896 San Francisco understand the perceived political legacies of the Burghers and Greeks? Armitage’s formulations on long-range intellectual history provide a trail in which I can follow. However, hopeful as most intellectual avenues develop, this trail will be paved and well traveled very soon.

  6. “While I quiver when attempting to present my own ideas among those whom I should revere, one historical concept explodes when inspected under ‘serial contextualism.’ That is ‘temporality.’ As I understand it, the conception of time frames and structures our entire existence. Through ‘transtemporal history’ we can see how the human conception of time radically shifts in various contexts.”

    As I read it, the first half of this statement is contradicted by the second. You say temporality is exploded by contextualization, but you also say that the conception of time “frames and structures our entire existence.” That would seem to indicate temporality is before contextualization. I gather you mean that time is conceived differently in different contexts, but that’s not the same as saying in some contexts temporality is exploded, which would mean in some contexts there isn’t a sense of time. Or is that what you are arguing?

    “One methodological problem I have been dealing with in this regard is how do individuals and groups understand this temporal construction of their lives? In contemporary phrasing, how deep do individual and group memories travel?”

    Could you explicate what the specifically temporal dimension is here? Beyond the fact that memories are transmitted through time and that because they are of “the past” or prior times are inherently temporal, I mean.

    • Varad Mehta
      “‘One methodological problem I have been dealing with in this regard is how do individuals and groups understand this temporal construction of their lives? In contemporary phrasing, how deep do individual and group memories travel?'”
      Question: “Could you explicate what the specifically temporal dimension is here? Beyond the fact that memories are transmitted through time and that because they are of “the past” or prior times are inherently temporal, I mean.”

      A more refined approach might be:
      Do individuals whom have deeper memories think or act differently than those with shallow memories? As David Lowenthal suggests in, The Past is a Foreign Country, “all present awareness is grounded on past perceptions and acts.” And if so, could not an individual’s particular understanding of temporality, influence the construction of their identities and actions, let alone frame the landscape of their memories which seem to define in large part the characteristics of one’s cultural identity? Additionally, and as suggested by Ray Haberski’s post referenced above (Marking Time Through War), an individual’s broader understanding of temporality results not from a linear extrapolation of the past but from a non-linear, wrinkling web of retrospection.

      Memories are certainly “of ‘the past'” as you say, however the character of the past recalled, the depth into history one’s memories travel, and the meaning placed on that depth, seem to represent formative structures of individual identity. “The past,” Lowenthal reminds us, “is both historical and memorial; its scenes and experiences antedate our own lives, but what we have read and heard and reiterated makes them part of our memories too.” Therefore, we should attempt to not only understand what memories a historical actor values, but how that actor’s memory is transfused with diverse and often contradictory conceptions of the past that are not of their own making.

      In the words of R. G. Collingwood, the past is called into “being by recollecting and by thinking historically, but we do this by disentangling it out of the present in which it actually exists.” When James D. Phelan (see my post), mayor of San Francisco in 1896, announced the “New San Francisco” in a speech given to the Mechanics’ Institute, he presented a version of the past that had a direct causal connection with his present through his advocation of the City Beautiful Movement. In the speech he acknowledged and traced republican and democratic (political systems, not party) precursors as antecedent to San Francisco’s own version of American exceptionalism. Phelan wrote that:

      “[O]n the map of the world the great bay and harbor, opening into 76,000,000 miles of ocean, was stamped by the hand of Fate and destined for empire, and passing generations, now floating on the tide of fortune, dimly conscious of the greatness of their metropolis, little appreciate the strength of their position and the value of their heritage. We are, perhaps, too close to the object to take an extensive view. We have groveled too long in the slough of self-depreciation, and should arouse ourselves to the dignity of our citizenship, and more particularly to the duties of the hour.”

      Significantly, Phelan’s understanding of this progressive social perfection of American republicanism was just as much a consequence of his deep memory as much as his position in power and stance on urban reform. Phelan even seemed to understand and act on the difference between those with shallow and deep memories and in some ways indicating his derision for those who failed to understand his long-view of history and the nation’s progressive evolution of republican societies.

  7. Mark, thanks for your scintillating comment.

    I am struck by the way you have phrased your “methodological problem.” You write, “How do individuals and groups understand this temporal construction of their lives?” (emphasis mine)

    I suppose that my way of handling that thorny issue would be to try to historicize that question for each one of the “serial contexts” under scrutiny. The way that people understand temporal construction changes over time, like anything else — but whether I would be able to manage the perspectival legerdemain necessary to trace that change right along with those changing “societal structures” you are looking at is another matter entirely.

    However, your comment reminds me of a couple of really intriguing past posts on this blog — what they both have in common is attention to/interest in the work of Mary Dudziak. I think they are worth a read. (And I should note that the logorrheic commenter who appears as “LD” is yours truly, before I shed my cloak of pseudonymity). Here are the links:

    Dudziak on Rodgers — Part IV of Age of Fracture Roundtable

    and

    Ray Haberski’s incisive and provocative post, Marking Time Through War

    If you’re a regular reader, you probably already caught those. But for those just stumbling upon this post/blog for the first time, I’d say they are a must-read.

  8. L.D. Burnett:

    “but whether I would be able to manage the perspectival legerdemain necessary to trace that change right along with those changing “societal structures” you are looking at is another matter entirely.”

    True, and this is of course my problem with everything. Perhaps for me its more of a too-big-for-my-britches kind of idealism.

    Although as I looked over the links you provided my position on temporality remains. I myself picked up Thomas Allen a couple years ago and was struck by its simplicity of argument and clarity of prose for such a slippery topic. I tend to follow his logic on much of this, but I was struck by the amount of material you suggested in the discussion feed of Dudziak on Rodgers — Part IV of Age of Fracture Roundtable . These works should be helpful.

    To clarify:
    My investigation into these concepts began in Gilded Age San Francisco. In a city with such a cosmopolitan population, how do minorities and liminal individuals and groups understand the city’s established image of itself? And how do these minority understandings “fit” themselves into that dominant urban narrative identity, exemplified by Mayor Phelan? Certainly the Chinese who by the late 19th century maintained a critical-mass of culture centered in Chinatown, demonstrated a practice of reconciliation with the dominant image through public celebrations. Place, memories and the meaning of the past defines our sense of self. In ignoring an individual’s (or society’s) depth of memory, the meaning one derives from the past seems hollow or incomplete. The significance of place is material. Historical memories on the other hand, according to Joyce Appleby, David Lowenthal, and Norbert Elias, are amorphous, sometimes illogical, and often irrespective of time’s linearity. Thus, to fully understand historical concepts of American identity, American exceptionalism, and the meaning people give to the past, I feel as though how the past is constructed remains significant.

  9. Mark:

    I don’t like threading so I’m going to reply to you here . . .

    You raise an interesting point about Phelan’s “deep memory.” Obviously, he was remembering things which he hadn’t personally experienced, so to the degree that memory is contingent on experience, it wasn’t his memory at all. I suppose we’d say he’s partaking in some sort of group memory and group identity. But how does one partake of a “group memory” and “group identity”?

    Ever since Locke, continuity of consciousness has been held as a fundamental principle of pesonal identity. The self now is the same as the self then because it remembers being the same self then as it is now. How does that work for groups? I’m not saying it doesn’t. We all take things like “collective” or “national” memory for granted, even if we don’t examine the concepts all that closely. Our existence as a nation, our ability to conceive ourselves as a nation requires it, even if no one “remembers” 1776 strictu sensu.

    I’m not sure we can do this in Collingwoodian terms, though. I don’t recall him paying any attention to the problem of group memory, but as he sees the past as entirely ideal and something which is created by every person re-enacting historical thought in their own minds, I’m skeptical he’d think such a thing as a group memory was possible. Each person recreates the past by encountering its remains in the present. If you take this to extremes, there are as many pasts as there are people imagining the past. And since he posits that the historical is one of the fundamental categories of the human mind, well, there are quite a few pasts out there.

    So, how does one bridge that gap, how do all these “histories” become a “deep memory”? I agree with you, or, rather, Collingwood, Locke, et al. that thinking temporally and historically are essential characteristics of humanity; that is, that thinking in and through time is part of what it means to be human. But is that necessarily a characteristic of group identity? I guess my question is, by what process do all those disparate personalities and memories cohere into a united whole, which influences disparate personalities and memories in turn? How at least do you envision that process? And if anyone thinks they detect metaphysics and epistemology here, they would be correct. That’s all this is about.

  10. “You raise an interesting point about Phelan’s “deep memory.”. . . But how does one partake of a “group memory” and “group identity”?”

    “Each person recreates the past by encountering its remains in the present. If you take this to extremes, there are as many pasts as there are people imagining the past.”

    Agreed. However, common experience by groups of people can lead to common re-creations (or imaginings) of the past. Groups of common experiences (if only living in the same locale) grow up in the same neighborhood, live in a more or less a common culture with comparable/reconcilable retrospective structures on the past. However varied that experience could be within a given geographic context is at least dependent on a culture’s dialogue with place. As you suggest, vis-a-vis Collingwood, “re-enacting historical thought” is dependent on their knowledge of the past. Beyond personal experience and memory, that knowledge of the past is dependent on received or inherited “pasts” that are available/reconcilable (dependent on place).

    So, how does one bridge that gap, how do all these “histories” become a “deep memory”?

    The disparate histories communicate and remain in constant dialogue with each other in the public and private spheres as they deploy various imaginings of the past. As John Gillis suggested in, “Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity,” present self-awareness is intimately bound with how one remembers the past. One way to investigate this, he suggests, is to look where identities (and its construction of the past) are deployed for particular purposes; in politics, associations, and commemorations especially. As those with the ability to deploy their identity for particular purposes achieve exposure to a wider public, that vision of the past will either reinforce or challenge the established imagining of the past. Whether this reinforcement/challenge is Hubert Howe Bancroft in his “history factory” or the E. Clampus Vitus organization preserving popular pioneer histories in monuments and commemorations, the effect these have on the established identity is dependent on the actors social power and the nature of the identities deployment. Hubert Howe Bancroft certainly had a larger impact on regional, and specifically San Franciscan identity, than the low-brow fraternal order, E. Clampus Vitus, who would however largely agree with Bancrofts “pioneer” view of California. Thus, the contribution to the established collective narrative by deployed identities is still relative to several factors, but not least of which being social power.

    Complicating this, Lowenthal reminds us, is that “each route to the past,” whether in written histories, established traditions, or physical relics, “are the domain of specialist disciplines.” And that an understanding of the past is not linear, but a web of retrospection through all avenues to the past; personal experience, cultural traditions, and relics. The story of southern California regional identity demonstrates that an acknowledged collective past does not even require cultural continuity, but can be grounded in place. As Glen Gendzel points out, in some ways it was this conquered yet reconstituted Californio identity which was resurrected by Anglo Angelinos as a uniquely southern Californian identity emphasizing the Hispanic or “Padre” legacy, in contrast to the Pioneer legacy of the north. The padre past was absorbed into the dominant Anglo narrative as a recognition of place. (cont. next post)

  11. In this social mileu, a dominant cultural “froth” more or less rises to the surface as competing histories deposit consensus’s revealed through interpretations of written histories, local/cultural traditions, and material relics (from small handheld symbolic relics, to architecture, monuments, to “historic” districts of locales). Back to Mayor of San Francisco, James D. Phelan, his interpretive deployment of the City Beautiful movement in the late 1890s (evidenced in civil reform, urban beautification, and urban planning) literally set to stone, monuments which he thought would inspire civic virtue through ancient wisdom. The Pioneer Monument for instance was inaugurated in the 1890s as a commemoration to the sacrifice of the early California Pioneers that inevitably conquered Alta California by superior culture and settled its American central city on Yerba Buena Cove; building the vanguard American republican society on the Pacific. Pioneer Park still stands today as a historical legacy that is not easily ignored. Associations were just as responsible as individuals in maintaining an established collective identity for the city. The Society of California Pioneers (beginning in 1856), the Native Sons of the Golden West (1870s – with associative group the Native Daughters of the Golden West), and others had their own, often varied, institutional memories. But in supporting monuments and politicians like the Pioneer Monument and James D. Phelan, these associations were playing a supportive role to the collective froth, depositing images, ideas, and orientations towards the past within the visible froth. Maintaining this established identity (froth) requires constant energy and protection from insurgent narratives that might cause disruption or dissonances. Interestingly the staying power of ideas and orientations within the collective identity seems to be a function not of this or that idea’s appeal, but to its tolerance within the established identity. Therefore an insurgent identity has a better chance of depositing its ideas in the collective froth if it is complimentary, compatible, or reconcilable.

    Importantly, as Robert Rydell has pointed out through a reader response schema in, “All The World’s A Fair,” is that the a vision of the past that is produced and deployed in political theatre, celebrations, and commemorations is often not the vision that is interpreted by the audience, and in some cases the participating actors themselves. In California’s Golden Jubilee for instance, the organizational battle over various segments and programs of the celebration by various sanctioned bodies eventually led to a program and construction of the past that no one intended; producing a grand vision that was neither the exact imagining of the past as the elite financiers, the organizational participants, or the audience understood. Although the primacy of social power still exists, as John Gillis reminds us, and often deployed visions of the past “were largely for, but not of, the people.” Therefore, to understand the processes by which individual imaginings of the past translate or transmute into group, and wider collective identities is to investigate how particular stories of the past emerge into the collective narrative froth through their deployment for particular ends. This competition of imagining the past is then set in a social landscape that varies in “ecologies” and “climates” which produce varying environments for an identity’s deployment.

  12. Therefore, although each avenue to the past is the product of a multitude of factors dependent on social and physical factors, each can be analyzed systematically and the ability to follow social power structuring identity is increased. But as Berglund had already pointed out, the power to influence the collective identity of a locale is also dependent on market forces. But that is another structure all together. My goal first is to analyze the top-down approach. Only then can the more contentious and contingent insurgent narratives can be analyzed. I hope to analyze histories, traditions, and relics to serially contextualize a viscous Pioneer identity emerging in San Francisco in the 1850s and becoming molded and transformed in the glut of Gilded Age San Francisco.

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