U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Moment of the Foxes

There’s an epistemological and historiographical problem that I am trying to make sense of in relation to the Pragmatists — and perhaps in relation to our relation to the Pragmatists — and I am having trouble formulating my thoughts on the matter.  So I have decided to take my question, such as it is, to the blogosophere, and see if  our good readers here can offer some clarity — or, maybe, some complexity.  Or both.
This weekend I am reading Twentieth-Century Multiplicity by Daniel Borus  and No Place of Grace by T.J. Jackson Lears.  Both are on my reading list, but only Borus is assigned for a class — the last organized class, by the way, that I will take in my entire academic career.  Ever.  To plunder the Kuhnian castle: I am headed for a major paradigm shift.  First, though, I have to get through this semester.
What I’m wondering about is how to historically situate or understand a particular kind of interpretive move that historians make, though it is certainly not unique to historians.  What I have in mind is our fondness for typological or characterological binarisms — the binarisms we can employ as shorthand to distinguish between two seemingly different ways that people extract or construct meaning from events. 

I’m thinking, for example, of how one can look at American thinkers at the end of the 19th century and divide them heuristically into “optimists” (John Dewey, William James on most days) and “pessimists” (Henry Adams).  This particular binary seems especially suited — or, I guess, favored — when discussing this period. Fragmentation, fracture, multiplicity, contingency, instability — however we might characterize the cosmology of that era, we seem to find it useful to situate the thinkers of the time in terms of whether or not that they saw in their own time reason for hope or cause for despair. 
In fact, I would suggest that historians of this period themselves might be seen as tending to be either “pessimistic” or “optimistic.”  In a footnote to his introduction, Borus writes, “Two diametrically different but superlative efforts to link culture to political economy are T.J. Jackson Lears, No Place of Grace…and James Livingston, Pragmatism and the Political Economy of Cultural Revolution” (15). Borus does not say what makes these inquiries “diametrically different,” but I would surmise that much of their difference has to do with each historian’s sympathy for a particular strain of thought emerging from the period.  I mean “sympathy” in a kind of Collingwoodian sense:  their effort to understand the thoughts of their subjects by re-thinking them and re-constituting them through their historical inquiry. Lears is recovering and legitimizing an elegiac lament for a lost past; Livingston is recovering and legitimizing an exuberant celebration of an open future.  And so in a way these monographs may come to re-instantiate the very sensibilities they explore.
Perhaps one might expect the historiography of this period to embrace binarism as a mode of inquiry or even divide along binaristic lines because the period itself was so marked.  Think, for example, of James’s distinction between the “tough-minded” and the “tender-minded,” where epistemology becomes a matter of two basic kinds of temperament.  What’s interesting about James’s bifurcation of “minds,” and other similar distinctions, is the way that a binary can be used to point toward plurality.
A similar binaristic taxonomy of “mind” that paves the way for pluralism is Isaiah Berlin’s famous distinction between hedgehogs and foxes.  Of course Berlin is writing after James, and in some senses perhaps in response to him — I’ll let the historians of philosophy weigh in here.  In any case, Berlin uses a binary to accentuate the value of plurality.  Indeed, Borus invokes Berlin’s binaristic metaphor in the introduction to Twentieth-Century Multiplicity as a helpful way of distinguishing between two kinds of thinkers or two kinds of thought:  “The early twentieth century,” Borus writes, “was the moment of the foxes, even if there were quite a few hedgehogs.  It is salutary to recall that Berlin saw the value of and need for both” (11). 
Borus situates the Berlinian fauna within the period he is studying — but also, by implication, within his study of the period.  What he says about the thinkers of the time is easily applicable to historians’ thinking about it:  “Where foxes remind us of the dangers of overgeneralization, hedgehogs remind us how helpful and at times necessary significant and meaningful generalizations are” (11).  That’s not just intellectual history; that’s historical method.
So here’s the best I can do in framing my question:  to what extent is the epistemology of historical inquiry, especially inquiry about this particular period of epistemic turmoil, indebted to and taking place within the framework of the period itself?  
If we look at American intellectual and cultural history in this time frame and see optimists and pessimists, tough-minded and tender-minded, modernists and anti-modernists, foxes and hedgehogs, are we seeing the object of our inquiry — the thinking of the time — or are we seeing everything through it? 

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. randall collins, in *the sociology of philosophies,* has an argument about how all really fertile philosophical ‘moments’–ancient athens, the left bank, etc–are best thought of as an ‘attention space’ (i think that’s his term), and really you can only have two or three terms within a given attention space (otherwise people can’t pay attention, and it falls apart). it’s crude and reductive (although his book is really long, so it must not be reductive or crude), but also circular in a way that sociological arguments often are and that makes it difficult to dispute. but maybe there’s the source of your binaries?

    can i re-phrase your question: have historians of pre-1914 US intellectual history really moved beyond the categories of the time and milieu they’re studying to impose new and (somehow) better ones? is that a fair re-statement?

  2. Eric, thanks for your comment. I suppose that in some sense the problem with which some thinkers of the period were concerned was how to broaden the “attention space” to accommodate the condition of “multiplicity.”

    But I would not phrase my question in the way you have suggested here because I don’t want to suggest that we need to get back on the whiggish wagon of progress, or the Pragmatic express train speeding not from truth but to it.

    It seems that pluralists deployed dualistic thinking in order to transcend dualism and accommodate complexity. Historians may rely on dualisms in much the same way — though one of the ways we might accommodate complexity is to simplify it for the purposes of narrative. Within the explanatory schemes we construct, the reigning dualism might be the methodological oscillation between the particular and the general — and the oscillation, the willingness and expectation to not choose finally the one or the other, may be our debt to the Pragmatists. But what we think we do and what we do might be two (!) different things.

  3. FWIW, Lears has something to say about the characteristic dualism of the era — though what he has to say is hardly unproblematic.

    Lears writes:

    As a seeker of double meanings, Freud found ambivalence everywhere. The concept grew from one of his most important insights: the recognition that character traits were not fixed and separate but fluid and intermingled. Convinced that personality embraced opposites, Freud emphasized the inner rage behind the meek demeanor, the desire for submission behind the wish to be free. Exploring the dialectic between latent impulse and manifest behavior, he insisted that ambivalence is woven into the structure of the self.

    But if ambivalence is universal, certain patterns of ambivalence resonate with special force at particular historical moments….
    (TJJL, No Place of Grace, p. 218)

    And then he goes on from there to highlight what he sees as some salient manifestations of this “universal” ambivalence.

    As to why this insight is not unproblematic…probably best to save that for another post, unless someone else wants to take a crack at it.

    But to Eric’s point: yes, there probably is a certain sense in which I am troubled by the inability of historical inquiry (my own, especially!) to “move beyond” the Pragmatists — “beyond” them enough to think of them somehow from the outside, instead of looking up and through. It’s not that beyond is better; beyond is just other. But as someone remarked on Jim Livingston’s post a while back, the tools we’ve got are the tools we’ve got. This is the only train running. Turtles all the way down…snapping turtles, no less.

  4. LD —

    As always, wonderful post.

    I think the best sentence in your post is: “Lears is recovering and legitimizing an elegiac lament for a lost past; Livingston is recovering and legitimizing an exuberant celebration of an open future.” That’s sharp and it suggest how looking backward and looking forward can seem, on the surface, to be a looking in different directions but, in the end, may well be a looking for the same thing.

    I take your followup comment to imply how deeply embedded we remain in the framework and worldview of pragmatism: what would it mean to forsake that without falling back on shallow abstractions or abandoning the “oscillating” sophistication of pragmatism for mere relativism? Is to think historically in our own time to necessarily think Pragmatically?

    All best,

  5. Michael, thank you for the kind words. I really struggled with how to find a way to put my thinking about this problem into words — or even to articulate exactly what the problem is that I’m thinking about.

    Your last sentence does the job admirably: Is to think historically in our own time necessarily to think Pragmatically?

    My answer to that would be a provisional “yes” — provisional because it remains to be seen whether truth will happen to this idea or not! And I love the way you qualified thinking historically: “in our own time.” It’s a good reminder to historicize our historicism. That has been the trickiest of all the tricks I am trying to learn: to situate one’s thinking about thought within time and use it to make sense of time.

    To put the matter more prosaically, it seems to me that distinctions between modern/post-modern — or, following Genter, high modern/Romantic modern/late modern/post-modern — are simply different ways of slicing the Pragmatic pie. “It all goes to the same place,” as they say.

    My epiphany du jour involves Veblen and his thoroughly Pragmatic assault on Pragmatism. I am mulling over a blog post about that, though I’m not sure what such a post would accomplish beyond serving up yet another slice of the same damn pie.

Comments are closed.