U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Where Am I?

In the last paragraph of his essay on “The Present and Future of Intellectual History,” Daniel Wickberg observes, “We have yet to have a really good history of American intellectual history, one that explains how we got where we are, how much our approaches are indebted to those of the past and the assumptions they made, and how much we have departed from them.”  
What I find most interesting about this statement is not the claim it makes about the need for a history of the field, but the way that it frames an epistemic problem in spatial terms.  We need to understand where we are.  Our methodological and theoretical commitments are approaches, and they may retrace older routes to knowledge or depart from them.  
Similarly, in his reflection on the role this blog might play in the future of intellectual history, Ray Haberski writes, “This is a place where intellectual historians (emerging and emerged) offer a body of work to be discussed by graduate students and senior scholars without pretense that they serve as an official organ for the field” (emphasis mine).
I draw attention to this language not because it is jarring, but because it is utterly unremarkable. 

It is seems perfectly natural to conceptualize thinking and knowing in spatial terms.  Indeed, the sense of space is implicit in the idea of a “field” — it is a conceptual territory with contested boundaries that allow us to define what is a proper subject of inquiry, and who is properly authorized to make such inquiries.  



This is the dual purpose of field exams in a PhD program — mapping the terrain and vetting its custodians.  Professors may joke that there is an element of hazing involved in the process, but I’m afraid they’re also telling the truth.  I’ll find out for myself next year when I take my qualifying exams.  I am not looking forward to it.  
To “look forward” to the future is to conceive of the temporal in particularly linear directional terms.  Indeed, this way of thinking about time is the conceptual foundation for both whiggish history and its dour doppelgänger, the narrative of declension.  It is, I suppose, the conceptual foundation for the Western idea of history, period.  
And what is a “conceptual foundation,” but a metaphor for knowledge-as-edifice?   Like the concept of a “field,” the concept of knowledge as something that is “built” has proved a serviceable metaphor for understanding this scholarly enterprise in which professional historians are engaged.   In That Noble Dream, Peter Novick characterizes the beginnings of professional history in America as an era of “brick-making,” an image borrowed from the public writing and private correspondence of J. Franklin Jameson, the founding editor of the American Historical Review.  Novick writes, 

This conception of the historian’s task — the patient manufacture of four-square factualist bricks to be fitted together in the ultimate objective history — had enormous professional advantages.  It offered an almost tangible image of steady, cumulative progress.  Although creating a grand synthesis might require an architectonic vision, almost anyone, properly trained, could mold a brick: worthwhile employment in making a contribution to the edifice was thus guaranteed to those of the most modest endowments.*

The historian as a brick-maker tasked with converting the (presumed) raw material of the past into useable pieces of “objective” knowledge to be fitted together in a collective building enterprise has mostly been discarded, at least in theory.  Instead, thanks to Theory, we have a way of stepping back from this enterprise and thinking of historical knowledge (and any other kind, for that matter) less as a given structure than as a posited construct. 
Yet behind and beneath these two seemingly different ideas stands the same basic metaphor:  knowledge is something we build together.  
But where?
Peter Novick ends That Noble Dream with a chapter titled, “There was no king in Israel.”  This phrase is lifted from the last verse of the biblical Book of Judges:  

In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes.

This verse serves for Novick as a fitting epigraph for the discordant and chaotic practice of history in a post-consensus, post-objectivity era.  But quoting this verse from Judges is also a cunning, punning invocation of Carl Becker’s 1931 AHA Presidential address, “Everyman His Own Historian.”  Becker was talking about “Mr. Everyman,” not “every man.”  As the AHA website notes, Becker’s call for a pragmatic, pluralistic (or, for some, relativistic) approach to history has been interpreted by some as a call for “greater modesty in interpretation” of the past.  Nevertheless, that call for modesty was anything but modest in its bold swipe at the foundations of the brick-making, brick-laying enterprise of professional history.  It must have sounded positively destructive to some.
Similarly, some read Novick’s book as a narrative of declension, and perhaps Novick himself viewed the story he was telling in that light.  But the “present” moment Novick described in 1988 — a moment of cacophonous dissensus — was also a moment of disciplinary creativity.  Look at the Bancroft winners for the decade following the publication of Novick’s masterpiece, and all the Bancroft winers since.**  This is the scholarship that came from or came of age amidst that age of fracture, that babel of voices.
Perhaps, then, I might be excused for imaginatively situating the field — or, perhaps, the construction site — of U.S. intellectual history not in the land of Canaan during the time of Judges, nor in the land of Egypt during the years of bondage, but on the broad plains of Mesopatamia in the mythic age between Noah and Abraham.    Though the gods have already come down once or twice to confound our speech, there is no guarantee that they will not come again.  And the more we sound alike, the more we speak the same language — or believe that we do — the more nervous we ought to be.  
So, between Daniel Wickberg and James Livingston and Daniel Rodgers and David Hollinger and Andrew Hartman and Bill Fine and Ray Haberski and David Sehat and Charles Capper — not to mention, as David Hall wryly notes in his MIH essay, “the occasional woman”*** — I think we’re good…for now.
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*Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge UP, 1988), 56.
**Never mind Bellesiles.
***David D. Hall, “Backwards to the Future: The Cultural Turn and the Wisdom of Intellectual History,” Modern Intellectual History, Vol. 9, No. 1 (2012), 176.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Are you sure the field isn’t located beside the Mansions of the Moon?

    I find it interesting that you locate the field of intellectual history adjacent to, or even at, the site of the Tower of Babel. But has the tower been built yet or is that in the future? Or is the field located in a temporal bubble where the tower has already been destroyed and has not yet been built, both at the same time? And where are all the other fields? Are they arrayed in a grid expanding our from a central point? Are they neighboring territories? Are some of the fields commons to which all have rights, while others are cultivated privately? Is it one united nation, composed of different territories? Or many nations all in the state of nature towards each other? Or perhaps it’s an empire governed by a monarch ruling various regions, some federated, some administered autonomously, and so forth. History as the Austro-Hungarian Empire!

    Joshing aside, I heartily concur with your stricture that “the more we sound alike, the more we speak the same language — or believe that we do — the more nervous we ought to be.” I took that to be one of the main themes of Dan Wickberg’s critique of the MIH forum. Personally, I’ve always been of the opinion that this is a problem with historians generally, that they have a kind of wanderlust to be anything but historians and instead ape whatever hot methodology from whatever the hottest field is at the moment.

    But let’s stick to intellectual history. My question is – to borrow another metaphor – is this desire to speak other languages a case of going native (intellectual historians wander to other fields, like what they find, and forget whence they came), or has intellectual history been colonized and the natives chosen to adopt the culture of their new masters, whose guns, technology, and liquor have clearly demonstrated their superiority?

    You and Wickberg both share the assumption – explicit in his essay, implicit in yours – that intellectual history should actually be intellectual history, and not something else. I profess it as well. But how do we make that happen? Or, to prhase it another way, how do we speak our own language and not another? And do we even know what our own language is?

    Speaking of languages, LD, while you’re back at the Tower of Babel, could you find out what sort of language they spoke? Was it Indo-European or Afroasiatic? Or maybe Finno-Ugric? I have money riding on this so I’d appreciate it if you could solve this mystery.

  2. Varad, you have built a much higher tower out of my metaphor than I intended to. Timing? How about this: “the tower is always/already/not yet built.”

    I said that the gods have already come down, and may do so again — so I suppose the metaphor is gesturing towards a dialectical process that’s probably something like a Kuhnian paradigm model, though I myself tend to think of things in more Jamesian terms. Basically, plurality of approaches / views is a good sign.

    As to assuming that “intellectual history should be intellectual history, and not something else” — I’m not sure what you mean by that.

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