U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Sensibility of Historians

By L.D. Burnett

What gives Andrew Hartman the authority to eschew (some of) the methodological commitments of Richard Hofstadter or Daniel Wickberg?  The same thing that gives Daniel Wickberg the authority to eschew (some of) the methodological commitments of Thomas Haskell and Michel Foucault.  As historians, they evidently share a certain sensibility, a certain sense of responsibility, to themselves and to their profession.   As I hope to show in this post, this particular sensibility of historians is what makes our work difficult, and what makes it matter. 

In the comment thread on Andrew Hartman’s recent post about Kevin Mattson’s oeuvre, Bill Fine challenged Andrew Hartman to a friendly fracas regarding matters of style and substance in historiography.  Their discussion explicitly addressed and implicitly raised a number of questions.  Is “style versus substance” a heuristically useful or a deceptively divisive binary?  Is style insubstantial? Do substantial differences come down to matters of style?  Or, to paraphrase the kid from Stand By Me, “What the hell is style, anyway?”

It seems that for the purposes of this post Hartman is picking up the term straight from Mattson’s Rebels All!.  Hartman doesn’t define how Mattson uses “style,” but he dismisses the significance of Mattson’s conclusions about it. Hartman writes:

I find Mattson’s argument that conservatives are the legatees of sixties radicalism very problematic. Conservatives are rowdy anti-establishmentarians in style. So what? In the first place, sixties radicals were hardly the first Americans to evince such a style. But more importantly, style should not always be conflated with substance, especially in this case. Sixties radicals were anti-establishment because they were against the war, racism, and sexism they thought endemic to the establishment. Obviously, the same cannot be said about conservatism.

Fine takes issue with the sharp distinction between style and substance that Hartman wants to draw “especially in this case,” and instead offers “a richer, if less precise meaning” for the term.  Fine references Hofstadter’s study of the “paranoid style,” and invokes Dan Wickberg’s reading of Hofstadter (and others) as making a “contribution to the history of sensibilities.”[1] 

Situating the work of Hofstadter as a contribution to a larger — and better, in the sense of being more comprehensive — inquiry that takes “sensibilities” as its object of study is just one of the more daring rhetorical moves Wickberg makes in his essay, “What Is the History of Sensibilities? On Cultural Histories, Old and New.” As part of making his case for the “superior” scope of “sensibility as an object of study,”[2] Wickberg encompasses Hofstadter’s historical understanding within his own.  That’s one way to claim your place in the profession.

Hartman doesn’t challenge Fine’s reading of Wickberg, or Wickberg’s reading of Hofstadter.  However, he does re-situate Wickberg in relation to Hofstadter.  Hartman places Wickberg alongside “James, Dewey, Foucault, Derrida, [and] Hofstadter,” only to dismiss them all as historians who have “a tendency” — might one say a style, or perhaps a sensibility? — “to overstate the conflation of style and substance.”  That’s another way to claim your place in the profession.

So, to review:  Hartman challenges Mattson’s conclusions on the grounds that giving undue weight to “style” is a methodological mistake.  Fine challenges Hartman’s binaristic division of style and substance, invoking Wickberg’s reading of Hofstadter.  Hartman groups Wickberg and Hofstadter together with Derrida and Foucault, which at first glance seems like high praise for Wickberg.  However, lumping historians together with theorists — especially these theorists — and suggesting that they think alike is not exactly a compliment.  Indeed, as I noted above, the fact that Thomas Haskell purports to explore the history of sensibilities but does so through a “rather abstract and speculative argument”  — that he views his object theoretically, rather than historically — is precisely what draws Wickberg’s criticism.[3]

Wickberg and Haskell take a similar approach, though, when it comes to Foucault.  However, Wickberg seems more willing to acknowledge the usefulness of Foucault’s theories than Haskell, who accuses Foucault (and Stanley Fish) of playfully or perversely choosing to operate under particular methodological and epistemic assumptions that “constitute a blank check for tendentiousness.”[4]  Wickberg is more moderate in his critique of the French theorist, as one might expect from a historian whose recent challenge to the purported consensus regarding the state of the field of intellectual history included the suggestion that we “listen to Foucault instead” of assuming that contexts (and therefore the questions that come with them) are not in many ways fashioned by our very inquiry.[5] 

Nevertheless, Wickberg claims, Foucault’s usefulness is limited, because Foucault’s vision is limiting.  Wickberg bases this claim on the same pragmatic ground that Haskell occupies:  what does Foucault get us?  Here is Wickberg’s answer: 

The overwhelming focus on instrumentalizing culture as a tool of power in some of the dominant forms of cultural history finds no room for those elements of culture that cannot be implicated in power relations.  Culture is not power, nor is power the only or the most important element of culture.  Power is but one dimension of culture, a dimension that might be more or less important for the historian and analyst, depending upon the concrete specifics of the cultural moment being studied.  It is an impoverished vision of human life that insists on turning people’s whole ways of experiencing, perceiving, and feeling into expressions of one dimension of human life.[6]

What I find most striking here is not the fact that a cultural and intellectual historian who has taken the linguistic turn dares to challenge the hegemony of Foucault (though I have to admit that I somehow missed this enchanted doorway to the Land Beyond Power/Knowledge in earlier readings of this essay).  Instead, what is so singular — and at the same time so typical, so exemplary — about this assessment of Foucauldian historiography is the way Wickberg grounds his critique in the autonomy of historical understanding.

The “autonomy of historical understanding” can refer to (at least!) two things.  On the one hand, it refers to historical epistemology as distinct from and free from the constraining necessity of (social) scientific reasoning — historical inquiry as ideographic rather than nomothetic.[7]  In this sense, Wickberg can set aside an exclusively Foucauldian approach because it subsumes and effaces the particularities of the past beneath a homogenizing general theory about power.  For the same reason, Wickberg can sharply criticize Haskell’s treatment of “sensibilities” for its abstraction; rather than focusing on concrete historical manifestations of a particular humanitarian sensibility, Haskell discusses “the humanitarian sensibility” via theoretical, hypothetical speculations. 

But the autonomy of historical understanding means more than just the epistemological distinctiveness of historical inquiry; it can also refer to the competence of the professional historian’s intellectual and moral judgment as such an inquirer.  The historian must exercise autonomy; he or she must be able to adjudicate between competing visions and versions of the past.  This autonomy is not the automatic possession of the historian; it is the hard-won habitus of seasoned practitioners who, by their participation in the profession, agree to work within a set of basic norms and constraints that Haskell identifies elsewhere as characteristic of a pragmatic objectivity.  Among other things, professional historians are committed

to do such things as abandon wishful thinking, assimilate bad news, discard pleasing interpretations that cannot pass elementary tests of evidence and logic, and, most important of all, suspend or bracket [their] own perceptions long enough to enter sympathetically into the alien and possibly repugnant perspectives of rival thinkers.[8]

Historians’ demonstrable commitment to this pragmatic objectivity — verifiable because it is testable, contestable and gamely contested by their fellow practitioners, as Fine and Hartman so congenially demonstrate — is what gives someone like Dan Wickberg the professional authority to say things like, “Foucault is of limited use here.” Further, he does so not only on epistemic but also on moral grounds — and those grounds are situated within his own understanding as a historian, and within his own understanding of history as a humanistic discipline, an understanding that, if not acquired in the contest, was doubtless sharpened by it.  Wickberg’s rejection of a narrow Foucauldian vision is not based on an appeal to extra-professional norms and standards, but rather grows out of a professional commitment to a particular way of understanding the past, a way that would be morally indefensible if it were not methodologically sound — at least methodologically sound enough to be put to the test in the pages of the AHR.  In a similar way, Hartman’s take on the (in)sufficiency of the history of sensibilities as a methodological approach has already come under an (informal) kind of peer review, and will be subjected to the collective critical scrutiny of the professional community.

Ultimately, the legitimacy of Wickberg’s challenge to Foucauldian theory, as well as the legitimacy of Hartman’s challenge to Wickberg, or Fine’s challenge to Hartman, derive from these historians’ autonomy as members in good standing of what Haskell calls the community of competent inquirers, a community whose epistemic integrity as a whole depends on the adjudicative integrity — the intellectual morality — of its individual members.[9]  

The challenge Fine has issued to Hartman regarding the finer points at the heart of 1960s historiography calls into question not only Hartman’s methodology, but also his moral vision.  Understood in terms of Wickberg’s contrarian state-of-the-field essay, Fine is asking Hartman to account for the questions he asks, and the way he frames problems, precisely because this is a way that precludes other approaches.  Fine wants Hartman to explain what he gains, and also to acknowledge what he loses, by eschewing approaches that do not assume sharp distinctions between “style and substance.”

Just as Fine demonstrates his autonomy by asking the question, so also Hartman asserts his autonomy in giving his answer.  His response to Fine demonstrates the freedom of historians to choose when to follow established models and when to set them aside.  While a U.S. intellectual historian might be expected to be familiar with “James, Dewey, Foucault, Derrida, Hofstadter, Wickberg, etc.,” he or she is under no obligation to see matters just as these scholars have viewed them individually or collectively.  (Is there anything, I wonder, that they have all viewed in like manner?)  Indeed, the historian’s obligation is to exercise his or her own best judgment as a critical, competitive member of the “community of the competent.”[10]

Nevertheless, I find Hartman’s response to Fine somewhat unsatisfying, precisely because it does not draw upon the full authority of Hartman’s moral autonomy as a historian.  Hartman has explained that he doesn’t like the way the history of sensibilities seems to flatten the very distinctions he would prefer to draw in sharp relief.  But what he does not explain is why it is important to him — methodologically, epistemologically, ethically — to draw that sharp distinction. 

Why is it essential for Hartman to draw a sharp distinction between the New Left and the post-60s conservative movement?  I am not suggesting that such sharp distinctions don’t exist, nor accepting that they do.  What I want to know is this:  what does that distinction get Hartman, and what does it get us?  In other words, I would like to know the practical consequences of choosing to see post 1960s conservatism as sharply distinct from all the varieties of conservatism that came before.   

Again, I’m not questioning the accuracy or the adequacy of that understanding; Andrew is the expert here.  I just want to know how that understanding fits within Hartman’s vision of the 60s and the Culture Wars (and I may have to wait for the book on that), and how that understanding in turn fits in with his more general “vision of human life.” 

Of course, by asserting that a historiographical method does in fact express a particular and ethically valent vision of human life, I am identifying myself with the sensibilities of similarly minded historians.  However, that is not the same thing as identifying myself as a historian of sensibilities.  That methodological approach is certainly well-represented in my reading list and in my graduate program, and it may or may not be well-represented in this blog post.  But the extent to which I will adopt it or not is a matter of my own autonomous judgment as a historian. 

This is my ethical obligation to my fellow-practitioners: to choose the methodological approach which I believe will allow me to give the best possible account of my subject, while at the same time accounting as best I can for the methods I use to attain that goal.  That professional ethos characterizes the sensibility of historians,  a sensibility I am pleased and proud to share with Andrew Hartman, Bill Fine, Dan Wickberg, and all the other fractious combatants in this fracas of the competent.


[1]Daniel Wickberg, “What Is the History of Sensibilities? On Cultural Histories, Old and New,” The American Historical Review, Vol. 112, No. 3 (June 2007), 677.

[2]Wickberg 664.

[3]Wickberg 680.

[4]Thomas Haskell, “Justifying Academic Freedom in the Era of Power/Knowledge,” in Objectivity Is Not Neutrality: Explanatory Schemes in History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1998), 212.

[5]Daniel Wickberg, “The Present and Future of American Intellectual History,” U.S. Intellectual History: The Blog for the Society for U.S. Intellectual History (S-USIH), 3 April 2012. http://us-intellectual-history.blogspot.com/2012/04/present-and-future-of-american.html Accessed 15 June 2012, 7:45 a.m.

[6]Wickberg, “Sensibilities,” 674 (italics mine).

[7]The most systematic explication of this distinction that I have read to date is Louis Mink’s essay on the subject.  A perceived need to define and defend the distinctive epistemic and disciplinary autonomy of history, especially intellectual history, emerges quite clearly in many of the essays presented at the Wingspread conference and subsequently published by Higham and Conkin.  See Louis O. Mink, “The Autonomy of Historical Understanding,” History and Theory 5, no. 1 (1966): 24-47; John Higham and Paul Conkin, editors, New Directions in American Intellectual History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1979), especially the essays by Hollinger, Wood, Ross, May and Haskell.

[8] Thomas L. Haskell, “Objectivity is not Neutrality: Rhetoric vs. Practice in Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream,” History and Theory, Vol. 29 No. 2 (May, 1990), 132.

[9]Haskell, “Academic Freedom,” 176. 

[10] Haskell, “Academic Freedom,” 178.

One Thought on this Post

  1. Some thoughts:

    It seems to me that the generative gesture that your post takes on is Hartman’s objection to the “conflation” of style and substance in the historiography of radicalism. “Conflation” is an interesting term: its etymology suggests both the melding (as in metallurgy) of entirely unlike materials, and the disappearance of some crucial marker of difference that keeps two related concepts distinct from one another (as in logic).

    The question of “conflation,” then, marks out in your post two areas of inquiry: 1) how we ought to treat style-merging-into-substance as we try to sort out the histories of Right and Left social movements; and 2) what rules should regulate how historians disagree with one another.

    I find the musing on the second question somewhat hard to follow. The thrust of your comments re: Hartman seems to be a call to lay cards on the table, to be more forthright about the connection between our moral and political commitments and the way we treat the particular issue of identity (or resemblance or homology) and difference vis-a-vis the history of conservatism and radicalism in the 1960s and after.

    Here’s my take: style matters in politics primarily as a means of announcing new subjectivities, previously left out of totalities like “the people” or “voters” or “citizens” or the “polity.” Style is the way the previously uncounted challenge the official vision of who counts (to borrow the terminology of Badiou and Ranciere). As such, the old notion of style as a shiny aesthetic shell masking an empty, substance-less core can simply be rejected as just another fiction of 19th century liberalism. Style doesn’t lack substance or cover for an absence of substance. By opening a gap in totality (to steal from Jodi Dean’s excellent theorizing of Occupy Wall Street), and keeping it open, style’s political efficacy lies in its marriage of substance (conceived of as the accumulated grievances of excluded groups) to a form that cannot be dismissed or ignored because it functions as a blot or stain on everyday reality.

    In this sense, Hofstadter’s use of “style” in the “Paranoid Style” essay confuses the issue, and Wickberg’s “sensibility” might well be the appropriate term. (The big problem with Hofstadter’s essay, of course, is not that he calls some strains of conservatism paranoid, which seems like an almost banal observation to anyone who accepts that psychoanalysis can usefully be applied to social and political history, but that he suggests that conservatism is the only site of paranoia, to say nothing of neurosis, hysteria, phobia, etc., within American politics). Conservatives in the 1950s and early 1960s were not working with a politics of style, but–and this is the event that seems to have launched a thousand fracases–by the late 1960s, some on the Right had begun to cultivate an ethic and aesthetic that resembled the anti-authoritarian style of the New Left.

    In the previous sentence, I wrote “resembled”: but is not the correct frame one that would emphasize how derivative the New Right was on the New Left? This, I think, is where the rubber hits the road. As Corey Robin argues in The Reactionary Mind, poaching on the energies, methods, and terminology of the Left is a defining feature of the Right, going back to the emergence of modern conservatism in the wake of the French Revolution. Conservatism emerges as a reaction to the Left, and is always derivative, in important ways, on the language and symbols of progressivism and radicalism. My provocation, then, would be this: maybe the reason why this debate seems to be so slippery is because we have not come to terms with the directionality of the lines of influence running from Left to Right. Maybe those are the cards that need to be laid on the table.

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